How to deal with the challenge of Voter Registration changes

December 17, 2013 4:51 pm

My old colleague, Paul Wheeler, has written an excellent article for the Labour Group of the Local Government Association on Electoral Registration which provides important ideas for further legislation effectively for the programme after the next General Election.  It is indeed very important that the Labour Party has a fully drawn up Bill for urgent enactments straight after that election.  However, in the meantime local councils and parties will have to engage with the problems created by this Government’s legislation where – whether by design or default – will enormously impact on the level of effective voter registration and in aid disproportionate manner.

This is clearly a tribute act to the US Republican Right who have advanced a long way down the track of electoral discrimination.  Indeed, currently the State of Texas is defending a legal action against voter restrictions on the grounds that it’s not discriminating against ethnic minority groups (which would be illegal), but is just discriminating against those who vote Democrat (which should nearly be unprincipled).

It’s fairly clear from reports of the Electoral Commission that there is serious under-registration in England which is particularly concentrated amongst the young, students, some ethnic communities and private renting tenants.  All of them are especially concentrated in urban areas and in addition there has been a long but still incomplete recovery from the sharp drop in registration induced by the Poll Tax.

The Government have introduced legislation that would actually exacerbate this trend by insisting on individual registration. We already know from experience in Northern Ireland that this is likely to result in a further sharp drop in the Register, particularly among these categories. Following the introduction of individual registration there the level fell from what was possibly an unrealistic 96.6% in 2001 to under 86% in 2002 from which it then steadily declined further until December 2006 when the registration level was 81.7% it has only moved back up to about 84%. While this may have taken out some doubtful registrations there is clearly a drop of some 10% in the Electoral Register.

However, complaining about this will be futile and Councils have to take actions to ensure a Register that is comprehensive and accurate.  Electoral Registration forms have now been sent out and the Register will be published on the 17th February 2014.  This Register will then be matched with the DWP database, probably around July/August 2014.  Where an entry matches, the Elections office will write to the elector letting them know that they are on the new Register.  Where the data does not match they will write to the occupier of the property with a form similar to the existing registration form asking the occupier of the property who is eligible.  They will then follow up with individual forms which will have to be returned with a National Insurance number and date of birth.  Of course every stage will lead to slippage, although this may be by design.

There has been a data matching pilot involving 14 local Council areas across the country.  This has thrown up widely varying results, but an estimated average shortfall of 25% not matched.  Some of this may be due to minor variations in names, but the task facing Councils and Parties is formidable.

Sandwell did a dry run in July and matched 82% followed up by local data matching with other Council held data such as Council Tax records which added another 6%.  That’s better than many Councils, but still a 12% drop.  Councils urgently need to get this down to manageable proportions and look at steps they can take now to ensure that they have the necessary data and also to ensure that existing unregistered voters are incorporated.  Individual registration also makes it imperative that in-year moves and changes are registered so that the problem does not bunch up at the annual canvass.

Therefore, at every stage of interaction with the Council voters should be automatically invited to register, examples could be:

  • An application for housing registration, Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit, a transfer, or indeed any Council service;
  • New Council Tax payers (and also deaths);
  • Local colleges and also secondary schools, (where attainers over 16 can be put on the Register to qualify when they reach 18).  In this context Council officers should visit the colleges or schools to undertake this on a systematic basis.
  • Estate Agents and Managing Agents to have voter registration forms as part of the New Tenant Pack
  • Council officers at Citizenship Ceremonies to sign up newly eligible electors (and sometimes also their relatives).

These are some ideas and Councils will make improvements and other innovations.  What is important is that we spread best practice – please let us know what works for you.

John Spellar is the MP for Warley. Darren Cooper is the leader of Sandwell Council

  • EricBC

    Make registration compulsory for receipt of any benefit.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      I like this idea.

      You can phrase it like a proper crack-the-whip policy to get the Tories on side and you end up with a bigger proportion of poor people registered to vote.

  • JoeDM

    Seems to me that to make the individual responsible for registration is the right thing to do. It will minimise voter fraud which we know has been growing in recent decades.

Latest

  • Comment The debate about building ‘the homes we need’ has to go beyond numbers

    The debate about building ‘the homes we need’ has to go beyond numbers

    Big numbers abound in housing debates and rightly so. Two-hundred thousand new homes – the number the Labour frontbench has committed to building annually – is a response to the housing crisis that is starting to approach the scale we need. But the debate about building ‘the homes we need’ has to go beyond numbers. To make the point, look at the extreme case of ‘buy-to-leave’ homes that are bought off-plan as investors’ latest fancy and sit there empty in […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The mansion tax is a progressive tax and Labour in London should support it

    The mansion tax is a progressive tax and Labour in London should support it

    For those of us who believe in progressive taxation the last few weeks in London Labour have been pretty dismal. We seem to have an array of Labour MPs (mainly wannabe London mayoral candidates) and council leaders rushing to the press denouncing the proposed mansion tax as a’ tax on London’ (or if they were more honest a tax on the rich parts of London). Yes the promotion of the Mansion Tax has been inept and it would more accurate […]

    Read more →
  • Comment It’s time to put the Green Belt back on the table

    It’s time to put the Green Belt back on the table

    The UK’s housing crisis has finally been recognised across the political spectrum as an issue that needs urgent attention. Yet despite this consensus, political inertia on housebuilding has seen subsequent governments fail to create policies that address the issue coherently and strategically. Labour’s recent Lyons Review demonstrates a commitment to house-building, with a target of constructing 200,000 homes a year. Yet while the Review recognises that the housing crisis is not evenly spread, requiring different solutions in different places, there is […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland ASLEF backs Neil Findlay for Scottish Labour leader

    ASLEF backs Neil Findlay for Scottish Labour leader

    Neil Findlay has become the first Scottish Labour leadership candidate to pick up Trade Union support. Rail union ASLEF have backed the MSP this afternoon, becoming the first union to formally endorse a candidate (although it looks like Unite will back Findlay too). Their General Secretary Mick Whelan released the following statement: “We are supporting Neil Findlay in his bid to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party and, we hope, First Minister in 2016, because he has the character, […]

    Read more →
  • Featured 5 things we learned from Labour’s PCC by-election victory

    5 things we learned from Labour’s PCC by-election victory

    I was genuinely concerned that Labour might lose the South Yorkshire PCC by-election. In recent weeks local MPs and candidates have been privately concerned by what they’d been hearing on the doorstep, and it seemed that there was a groundswell of support for UKIP – with one telling me it was a “perfect storm” for Labour. In the wake of the shocking Rotherham child abuse scandal, Shaun Wright’s resignation from the post (which Labour doesn’t believe in and has pledged […]

    Read more →