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

  • Featured The left must be concerned with the state of the state

    The left must be concerned with the state of the state

    The appalling conclusions coming out of the report into child sexual abuse in Rotherham should concern us all. On an individual level at least 1,400 people have had their lives shattered. These people were some of the most powerless and often the most reliant on the services provided for them by the state. They have been let down and let down badly. So too were many of the front line workers within the state apparatus who tried to support them […]

    Read more →
  • Comment It’s morally wrong to make patients pay for hospital parking

    It’s morally wrong to make patients pay for hospital parking

    Over the Bank Holiday weekend the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was trumpeting his new ‘ground rules’ to address rip-off hospital car parking. Any action to curb extortionate car parking prices at hospitals should be welcomed. However, reading these new ‘principles’ it appears they are not enforceable. My assumption was confirmed when the Department of Health answered a tweet from me by stating that ‘NHS Trusts will be held accountable to local people and organisations that represent them e.g. HealthWatch’. This […]

    Read more →
  • News Failing to meet export targets – Osborne has got it wrong again, says Mahmood

    Failing to meet export targets – Osborne has got it wrong again, says Mahmood

    Today, Shabana Mahmood, Shadow Treasury Minister, has explained how George Osborne is on course to fall short of export targets he set for himself. Writing for PoliticsHome, Mahmood has released figures on British exports, which, she explains, “show that there are still major concerns about how balanced the recovery has been so far.” Two years ago Osborne said that by 2020 he would double exports to £1 trillion. However, Mahmood cites figures that suggest it looks highly unlikely that the UK could meet […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Labour call for Rotherham Police and Crime Commissioner to step down

    Labour call for Rotherham Police and Crime Commissioner to step down

    A Labour Party spokesperson has said the Shaun Wright should resign as South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Wright, who is Labour’s PCC, was previously a councillor on Rotherham council and  between 2005-2010 was head of children’s services. In response to a report on child abuse in the area, which found that between 1997 and 2013 1,400 children were subjected to sexual exploitation in Rotherham, Labour have called for Wright to stand down. A spokesperson reportedly told PoliticsHome: “The report […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Life skills need to be at the heart of Labour’s curriculum

    Life skills need to be at the heart of Labour’s curriculum

    When Gove was demoted and moved away from his beloved education brief you could almost hear the sound of champagne corks popping in staff rooms across England. Yet two months after the most high profile demotion of this parliament, Labour’s policy on education remains one its most underdeveloped. This is not necessarily a bad thing, saving the education debate until nearer the election could be a shrewd move for the party given that all but one of the Education department […]

    Read more →