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Time to reverse the long-term trend of declining voter registration

4 min read

Co-Chair of the APPG on Democratic Participation, Baroness Grey-Thompson, writes exclusively for PoliticsHome to mark the publication of the 'Missing Millions' report calling on all young people to #RegisterToVote in elections on May 5th by today's deadline.

Though I always feel privileged to visit colleges, schools and sixth-forms across the country every year, two things are abundantly clear every time I talk with students. One, they want to know more about how politics affects them, and the world around them - and two, the political education they are given is often inadequate, incomplete and uninspiring. A vast majority of young people leave school having never been taught anything about British politics, and move on without the essential knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Crucially, because of the absence of voter registration sessions in schools, they’re often also unable to exercise their right to vote as informed and active citizens.

Recent figures, which show there's been a 40% drop in the number of ‘attainers’ (young people who will reach voting age over the next year) on the electoral register since 1 December 2015, should therefore come as no surprise. Previously, heads of households registered everyone living under one roof (that's what my Dad did for me, and I recognise the world has changed) but, under the new system of individual electoral registration (IER) now in place, each person must register to vote individually.

The end of the transition to this system was rushed through by the Government, despite repeated warnings from the Electoral Commission, campaigners and academics that it would leave many young people without a voice. The picture of youth voter registration is bleak. But it doesn’t have to be that way. An excellent innovation in Northern Ireland led to a marked increase in the level of registered 18 to 19 year-olds, bringing it 7% above Great Britain's average. This is known as the ‘Schools Initiative’, and involves the Electoral Registration Office coordinating with teachers and visiting schools to register students where they are. After changes to Northern Ireland's registration system in the 2000s, just 244 attainers were left on the roll. Recognising the need to act, the programme was introduced, increasing the number to 11,227.

Replicating the ‘Schools Initiative’ across the rest of the UK is just one of the 25 recommendations from a new report, co-authored by Bite The Ballot (of which I’m Patron) and UEA's Dr Toby James for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation (of which I’m Co-Chair). Our 'Missing Millions' report calls for wholesale reform of the way we educate young people about politics, offering simple, achievable solutions to close the widening generational divide between those who are registered, and those without a say in our democracy. Our recommendations appeal so much to common sense that policy-makers would be foolish not act on them.

Encouragingly, there are signs politicians are starting to wake up. Gloria De Piero MP, Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration, alongside campaigners and academics, called on the Government to roll out the 'Schools Initiative' last month. Jo Johnson MP, Minister for Science, wrote to universities last week, encouraging students to register for the EU referendum. Other parties (Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Labour) have made manifesto promises in the past, pledging to make it easier for young people to register in school. But, so far, that's all they have amounted to - promises.

Political parties can and must do more. That's what 'Missing Millions' calls on them to do. Without people willing to stand up, recognise and admit that our current system is unfair, unjust and exclusionary, the long-term trend of declining registration among young people will only worsen. Wasting time and energy campaigning for every eligible citizen to be ‘allowed’ to vote is ludicrous in any democracy - it should be the bare minimum we expect. And introducing the ‘Schools Initiative’ is such a no-brainer that you’d be forgiven for thinking that governments don't want young people registered at all.

Ahead of the EU referendum, as well as crucial elections in Wales, Scotland and London, the Government has to guarantee that it will uphold and strengthen UK democracy as best it can. Rolling out the ‘Schools Initiative’ would be a confident step in the right direction.

The Baroness Grey-Thompson DBE is a Crossbench peer and is Co-Chair of the APPG on Democratic Participation.

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