Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum by The Electoral Commission (VOT 02)

  The Electoral Commission welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to this joint inquiry launched by the ODPM and Constitutional Affairs Committees on the issue of voter registration. Please find the written evidence attached.

  In its written evidence The Electoral Commission has highlighted a number of recommendations to Government related to electoral registration that are already in the public domain. In particular, we have reiterated our belief that the adoption of a system based on individual registration is the right approach in principle for the whole of the UK. This is one of a series of reforms to the electoral process proposed in our review The electoral registration process. It formed part of our wider modernisation agenda outlined in our report Voting for change. Both reports were published in 2003.

Sam Younger



  1.1  The Electoral Commission (the Commission) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the joint ODPM Select Committee and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee inquiry into voter registration. We also particularly welcome the joint approach to this inquiry, reflecting the shared Departmental lead on electoral matters within government, and the role of local government in managing electoral registration services.

  1.2  The Commission will be happy to expand upon or supplement any of the points made below in oral evidence to the Committee.


  2.1  The Electoral Commission was established as an independent statutory authority on 30 November 2000, following the commencement of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

  2.2  The Commission is headed by a Chairman with four other Commissioners. The Chairman and Commissioners do not have connections to any political party, nor is the Commission accountable to the Government. It reports directly to Parliament through a committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Commission has a UK-wide remit and has offices in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

  2.3  The Electoral Commission is responsible for overseeing a number of aspects of electoral law—the registration of political parties and third parties, monitoring and publication of significant donations to registered political parties and the regulation of national party spending on election campaigns. In addition, the Commission has the role of managing referendums in the UK and promoting voter awareness and advising those involved in elections on practice and procedure, as well as reporting on the administration of every major election.

  2.4  Since its establishment in November 2000, the Electoral Commission has undertaken an extensive programme of policy reviews and proposals for electoral modernisation. The key recommendations for legislative reform were summarised in Voting for change (June 2003). In general, the recommendations made by the Commission have been well received and the Government has already committed to the implementation of around 70% of the proposals put forward in Voting for change.


  3.1  This submission provides an overview of the Commission's views on the issues raised in the Terms of Reference for the Select Committee inquiry and outlines the Commission's recommendations for modernisation of the electoral registration process.

  3.2  The Commission considers electoral registration to be the lynchpin of the electoral system and a key element of the Commission's programme of reviews of electoral law and practice, both past and present. The Commission places electoral registration at the centre of its electoral modernisation programme. Our wider modernisation agenda is outlined in our report Voting for change (June 2003), appended as Annex 1.

  3.3  The Electoral Commission draws the Select Committee's attention to the Commission's report entitled The electoral registration process (May 2003), appended as Annex 2. This report sets out the Commission's views on the current arrangements for electoral registration in the UK. It details matters relating to managing and creating the register, security issues, tackling under-registration and sets out ways forward in the reform and modernisation of the electoral registration process.

  3.4  The Commission remains committed to the findings and recommendations set out in The electoral registration process. In particular, the Commission continues to believe that individual registration is the right approach in principle for the whole of the UK.

  3.5  The Commission firmly believes that a system based on individual registration is more consistent with human rights and data protection legislation than current registration arrangements.

  3.6  The Commission also considers that individual registration is necessary to best meet the increasing demands from the voting public for postal voting (whether all-postal voting or the increased take-up of postal voting "on demand"). More broadly, individual registration would also enable greater voter choice by facilitating the development of multi-channel voting, which necessarily demands a more robust system of registration.

  3.7  The Commission acknowledges that there are elements critical to the effective implementation of individual registration, which need to be addressed in order to protect and strengthen the integrity of the register. These include:

    —  The development and delivery of concurrent communication and outreach strategies, both general and those aimed specifically at hard-to-reach groups that are most vulnerable to being lost from the register; and

    —  The need to consider a carefully managed, phased approach to implementation.

  3.8  The Commission is committed to working with the Government and others to develop appropriate and pragmatic strategies in this regard. The Commission acknowledges that this may entail a programme of staged change towards the goal of individual registration, built into a realistic timetable for wider electoral modernisation that includes the development of multi-channel elections, including e-voting.


  4.1  Registration in England, Wales and Scotland is currently based on a combination of annual household registration and individual "rolling" registration, which allows for changes of personal details to be registered during the year at the initiative of an individual. Registration in Northern Ireland is now on an individual basis. [9]

  4.2  In England, Wales and Scotland, at the annual canvass, a form is sent for completion to the householder (or a named person) who is obliged to complete and return the form on his or her own behalf and on behalf of anyone else who resides in the household and is eligible to vote. The form must include details of those resident and eligible on a prescribed date: 15 October.

  4.3  In February 2001, the process of "rolling registration" was introduced, providing a voluntary means by which entries can be added to the register or deleted throughout the year. [10]The onus is on the individual to amend their registration details. Unlike the procedure for the annual canvass, each individual must sign the application personally, providing details of previous address.

  4.4  An additional factor has been the advent of two versions of the register, the full version and the edited version. An edited version of the register, from which individuals have the right to "opt out" is available for sale to any person or organisation. The consequence of this is that the householder is asked at the annual canvass to indicate (in relation to each individual on the form) whether individuals want to opt out of the version of the register available for sale.

  4.5  In addition to the overriding principle that a right as fundamental as voting should only be secured by personal initiative (no-one would suggest, for example, that voting itself should be exercised by the head of household on behalf of other householders), the Commission has identified five main reasons for recommending a move to individual rather than household registration:

    —  Consistency;

    —  Enhanced compliance with data protection and human rights legislation;

    —  Increased participation, over time;

    —  Increased security and accuracy;

    —  Support for modernisation of voting arrangements.

These are examined in more detail below.


  4.6  A move to individual registration in England, Scotland and Wales would achieve both consistency within the UK and remove the current distinction between individual "rolling" registration and household "annual" registration. The task of explaining the registration process to those eligible to be registered would be made far simpler if there were to be only a single process involved.

Enhanced compliance with data protection and human rights legislation

  4.7  The Commission firmly believes that a move to individual registration is likely to be more compliant with data protection and human rights legislation than existing arrangements. Under a system of individual registration, each individual would be required to provide information about him or herself, rather than one individual (the "head of household") providing information about others in the same household. Current arrangements in which the responsibility for asking each individual for his or her preference lies with the "head of household" may provide some scope for abuse. These arrangements can prove particularly problematic in multiple occupancy "households" such as student residences and care homes for the elderly.

  4.8  The majority of respondents to the consultation process in the development of the Commission's report The electoral registration process recognised the data protection and human rights considerations and either supported the move to individual registration as a matter of principle or felt it was inevitable sooner or later. The Information Commissioner, responding to our consultation, commented: ". . . household registration is a remnant of the Victorian requirement of property qualification for voters. In our view this arrangement is somewhat anachronistic and we wonder how well it fits into today's framework of individual rights and responsibilities."

  4.9   The small minority of respondents to this consultation process who preferred to stay with the current method did so on grounds of practicality rather than principle, in that the current system of household registration is known and trusted by the public and its management and administration are known quantities.

Increased participation, over time

  4.10  Although the experience of introducing individual registration to Northern Ireland might suggest an initial impact of a drop in registration rates (the Commission is happy to expand on this point in oral evidence), we believe that the ultimate outcome of individual registration should be to empower and encourage some under-registered groups to participate in the democratic process and vote. For example, 18-24 year olds are the least likely of all age groups to vote[11] and our research shows that many have little idea of how to register or even of the need to register. This may be exacerbated by the fact that their parents or (if students in university accommodation) hall warden do the job for them. Within our current system of household registration, these young people risk growing into householders who are unaware of their responsibilities in relation to registration. Inculcating the habit of registration from an early age could be beneficial in maximising registration rates in later life.

  4.11  As already noted, explaining the registration process to potential electors—and so encouraging registration—would be easier for both the Commission and Electoral Registration Officers if both the annual canvass and rolling registration operated on an "individual" basis. Moreover, an effective public awareness campaign on individual registration for under-registered groups could well, over time, impact positively on participation rates generally.

  4.12  Individual registration would also facilitate the introduction of more user-friendly systems of registration. We have previously recommended a move away from a system that is entirely reliant on the completion of paper forms in order to encourage registration and increase accessibility. For example, the Commission has supported moves to pilot telephone and online registration. Although some local authorities have already initiated such pilots, we believe that they would be more secure (and be more able to secure public confidence) if a system of individual registration were in operation. In addition, individual registration could facilitate greater accessibility by enabling individual electors to choose their preferred mode of voting at the point of registration.

Increased security and accuracy

  4.13  One of the Commission's primary concerns is to enhance the security of both the registration and voting processes. We believe that individual registration offers two key advantages in this regard:

    —  First, the "household" system currently operating at the annual canvass does not allow for the collection of individual identifiers. Individual voter identifiers could be used to check the identity of the individual both at the point of registration (by reference to another existing database) and/or when casting a ballot (when the identifier provided at the point of registration could be checked with that provided when voting).

    —  Second, the issue of a single form to each household provides an opportunity for the "head of household" to include (or exclude) information about residents which renders the form inaccurate. This might be done deliberately or accidentally (for example, because the head of household does not realise that they are required to include certain household members). A clear personal responsibility for completing a registration form would reduce the scope for such errors and deliberate fraud.

Support for modernisation of voting arrangements

  4.14  In the past, both the Commission and the ODPM Select Committee have identified a clear link between the use of all-postal voting and individual registration. The Commission has recently recommended against any extension of all-postal voting. [12]Nevertheless, we continue to believe that individual registration is a necessary part of the modernisation of the electoral process.

  4.15  In particular, the Commission considers that individual registration is necessary to:

    (a)  provide a robust framework for meeting the increasing demands from the voting public for postal voting on demand. At the 2004 European Parliamentary elections, postal ballots were issued to 8.6% of the electorate across those regions in Britain not holding all-postal pilots, higher than the 3.9% across Britain at the 2001 general election. In some local authority areas the take-up was higher still with around a quarter of the electorate requesting a postal vote (in Stevenage, more than half—52.6%—did so). With the growing level of postal voting on demand, the arguments applying in relation to all-postal voting clearly need to be applied equally to "traditional" voting.

    (b)  underpin the development of the Commission's proposed new "foundation model" of voting. This new model is being developed to ultimately achieve multi-channel voting for all UK elections. It is intended to give voters choice whilst learning the lessons from all-postal voting. The Commission will be reporting later this year and the Government has indicated that it will take account of the Commission's proposals in considering the future of elections in the UK;

    (c)  provide a key building block in enabling electronic and other multi-channel voting in future elections, which necessarily demand a more robust system of registration.

  4.16  The Government remains committed to the goal of an "e-enabled general election", and has indicated that it intends to publish an "electoral modernisation strategy" shortly. We believe that the implementation timetable for the Government's electoral modernisation programme and the necessary steps towards an e-enabled general election need to be carefully staged, managed and monitored, and considered alongside other key policy commitments that could have a significant effect on the success of the modernisation programme.


  4.17  The Commission considers that the way in which individual registration is taken forward is critical to its success and to the integrity of the register. The practicalities could have a significant impact on registration levels. Experience from Northern Ireland suggests that, at least initially, it is possible that registration levels could drop. Concern about this has been expressed by a number of organisations and individuals, both directly to The Electoral Commission and more publicly. Furthermore, concerns have also been expressed about the practical difficulties of implementation, including potential public resistance to what might be perceived as increased bureaucracy.

  4.18  The Commission takes these practical concerns seriously. Nevertheless, the Commission continues to believe that individual registration is the right approach in principle for the whole of the UK. We also hold the view that effective communication and outreach strategies must be an important part of implementation in order to minimise unintended losses from the register. We are committed to working with the Government and others to develop appropriate strategies, building on our experience in Northern Ireland. The Commission, in line with its responsibilities under section 13 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, would propose to mount a major public awareness campaign around the introduction of individual registration as well as contribute to other initiatives. This would include both general responses and those aimed specifically at hard-to-reach groups that are most vulnerable to being lost from the register.

  4.19  We are pleased that in the Government's recent response to our report Voting for change, the Government expressed sympathy for the principles of individual registration, whilst also noting the potential implications in terms of the impact on registration data. [13]We are committed to working with the Government and all other interested parties to develop a pragmatic and practical scheme for individual registration.

  4.20  An example of a possible staged approach to the introduction of individual registration might include reducing the frequency of the annual canvass, thereby placing more incentive on electors to utilise the individual based "rolling registration" arrangements and enabling resources to be redirected towards canvassing under-represented groups. Whilst the Commission's report The electoral registration process recommended that the annual canvass be retained as an interim measure, it also indicated that there was a case for introducing more local flexibility on the use of the canvass or audit, within a statutory framework that could specify maximum and minimum periods between canvasses.

  4.21  The Commission notes that in November 2004, the Government announced that the annual canvass in Northern Ireland would be abolished. This has resulted from concerns across the political spectrum that the requirement on voters to reregister and provide their personal identifiers afresh each year was leading to a downward drift in the overall numbers registered.


  5.1 The Commission has undertaken (and funded others to undertake) considerable research over the last four years in relation to understanding public motivations for participation in the electoral process—both registration and voting. This research programme is designed to inform our work programme and provide a robust evidence base for others. All final research reports are in the public domain.

  5.2 Analysis in 1993 found 93% of those eligible to vote in Britain were actually on the register. [14]The Commission is currently undertaking a major research project to enhance our understanding of registration and in particular the extent and nature of non-registration. A systematic comparison of population data and electoral registers has not been repeated since 1993. The research project will draw on statistical analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimating the extent of non-registration in Britain[15] as well as case studies to investigate administrative practice and the impact of "rolling registration" and public opinion research. It is anticipated that this research will be published in summer 2005.

  5.3 Strategies for encouraging registration and tackling non-registration need to reflect the root causes of current behaviour. For example, in a 2003 public opinion survey carried out for the Commission by MORI, the most common reason given by those (of all ages) not registered was "just moved house", mentioned by 23%.

  5.4 The Commission's 2002 report Voter engagement and young people (appended as Annex 3) considered the reasons for the particularly high levels of non-registration among young people and identified a number of contributory factors: "ignorance, administrative inefficiency, having recently moved, alienation from the political system and deliberate avoidance of registration in relation to the secondary use of the register".[16]

  5.5 The Commission, in line with its responsibilities under section 13 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, has undertaken a range of public awareness work over the last three years. In working to devise effective communication strategies, the Commission has sought to acknowledge the diversity of public experience identified in our research.

Public awareness work in Great Britain

  5.6  In Great Britain, The Electoral Commission currently carries out two strands of work aimed at encouraging registration and tackling resistance to it. These strands are defined by the target audience to which they are addressed.

  5.7  The first strand tends to be targeted at the entire electorate, and reminds voters to check that they are registered prior to a forthcoming election or referendum. This activity usually consists of high-profile advertising and media relations across the geographical area covered by the election or referendum. The campaign encourages people to call our helpline or visit our website, to find out more information or to fill in a registration form.

  5.8  The second strand of activity is made up of micro-campaigns targeted at tightly-defined and often hard to reach areas of the population. Examples include students, those moving home, overseas voters, and service voters - and uses media best suited to address these groups, whether advertising, direct mail, media relations, online communication or working in partnership with third parties. These "micro-campaigns" encourage people to register at any time of the year through filling in a rolling registration form.

  5.9 Since 2003, the Commission's pilot "Outreach Programme" has also been working to encourage registration specifically among young people aged 16-24 outside formal education. The Outreach Team runs regular "democracy workshops" with young people, encouraging them to register to vote. In the run up to the European Parliamentary elections in June 2004 the programme ran "The Box" tour of Great Britain which informed young people about the forthcoming elections and encouraged them to register. In addition, the Outreach Team distributes information packs for youth workers and teachers for use with 18-24 year olds, explaining to them how to register and the importance of registering.

  5.10 Alongside these two main strands of activity, the Commission produces and distributes registration forms, as well as leaflets encouraging different groups to register, throughout the year. Forms for rolling registration are available in a variety of languages and formats. The Commission works in partnership with commercial and public sector organisations to provide access points for forms and leaflets, as well as online access via our website. The Commission also produces materials promoting the annual canvass for electoral administrators to use at the time of the annual canvass. All materials are available for administrators and other third parties to order free of charge.

  5.11  Research and evaluation show the Commission's activities to have positive effects on registration rates. For example, the spring 2004 micro-campaign targeting home-movers generated 53,000 individual registrations as a direct result of a mailing from the Commission, with a further 6,000 people clicking through to our website from online advertisements on home-mover websites. "The Box" tour of Great Britain achieved over 1,000 registrations among young people. The all-electorate campaign prior to the registration deadline for the 10 June 2004 European Parliamentary elections resulted in over 12,000 visits to our website during a two-week period, as well as over 3,000 calls to our helpline.

Public awareness work in Northern Ireland

  5.12  In Northern Ireland, where individual registration is already in use, The Electoral Commission also employs a two strand approach to encouraging registration, although in this case both strands are aimed at the general public rather than more targeted "micro campaigns".

  5.13  The first strand aims to remind the electorate of the need to register personally every year. Since the introduction of the Electoral Fraud Act (Northern Ireland) in 2002, the Commission has run an annual campaign reminding people of the new processes involved in annual registration. This campaign consists of high-profile, multi-media advertising, leafleting, media relations and youth work, supported by a website and helpline. Research shows that awareness of the need to register every year now stands at 84%.

  5.14  The second strand reminds voters of the deadline to register prior to a forthcoming election. It is designed to target any people who may not have registered through annual registration, prior to relevant pre-election registration deadlines. It consists of high-profile advertising and media relations.

  5.15  In 2004, for the first time, the Commission's Outreach Programme also ran a tour of university campuses in Northern Ireland to encourage young people to register to vote.

Other initiatives to encourage registration

  5.16  There is some evidence to suggest that there is scope for successful interventions to increase registration levels, especially in relation to well-defined audiences.

  5.17  The Commission's research study Making an Impact: the local promotion of electoral issues[17] (2002), describes what is being done at local level to encourage registration, and provides best practice guidance for local authorities. The researchers concluded that: "What is clear … is that local promotion can have small but significant effects at the margins. Raising awareness of how to register to vote is an integral part of the electoral process. Doing it as well as possible has to be the aim."

  5.18  It is therefore a concern that, at the local level, the Commission has identified a divergence of views among Electoral Registration Officers as to how far they should go in promoting registration, especially in targeting traditionally under-represented groups. They have a duty to maintain the electoral register and to include the names of all persons who appear to them to be eligible for inclusion. Whilst some Electoral Registration Officers do take a proactive approach to electoral registration, including specific activities to encourage registration by under-represented groups, others do not see targeted campaigning as part of their role. Some have objections of principle, and express concerns that targeted campaigning would be "political" as this could be seen as boosting support for a particular political party or parties. Electoral Registration Officers who express those concerns also point to the risk that local politicians might seek to intervene to influence the targeting.

  5.19  The Commission understands the concerns of Electoral Registration Officers in seeking to guard against the possibility of political bias in the registration process locally. However, given that the ultimate goal would be to ensure (as near as possible) 100% registration of local communities, it is difficult to see that not tackling under-registration in certain sections of society is an acceptable position either.

  5.20  The Commission's report The electoral registration process (2003) recommends that Electoral Registration Officers review their promotional strategies for electoral registration and adopt the best practice put forward in the Commission's 2002 report Making an Impact: the local promotion of electoral issues. We have also recommended that the Government should clarify the legal position in relation to Electoral Registration Officers' powers to undertake promotional work, and if necessary introduce new legislation to put this on a clear footing. The Government's recent response indicated that they were in agreement with the desirability of such activity but were not currently persuaded of the need for legislation in this regard. [18]We hope that the situation will be established beyond doubt in the near future.


  6.1 It is a common perception that registration is already compulsory. In fact, as the Select Committee will be aware, the present situation is a curious hybrid of compulsion and voluntarism.

  6.2 At the annual canvass a registration form is sent to the householder (or named person) who is obliged to complete and return the form on their behalf and on behalf of anyone else who resides in the household and is eligible to vote. It is an offence under the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 to fail to comply with the request for information or to give false information, thus making compliance effectively compulsory. Since 1986, the penalty has been a fine not exceeding £1,000. At present, no similar offence exists for the provision of false information on a rolling registration form.

  6.3 However, prosecutions are brought rarely and the penalty is therefore not widely used. Many of those involved in the delivery of electoral services have pointed out to the Commission that the current sanction is largely unworkable. Many electoral administrators consider that pursuing penalties would be time-consuming, lengthy and not cost-effective. They point out that if the identity and details of an individual who has not registered are known, sufficient to pursue a case to court, that individual could simply be registered rather than the authority going to the expense and trouble of legal proceedings. In reality, only individuals who deliberately intend not to register would be pursued through the current mechanism.

  6.4  There is also no compulsion on eligible voters to register should their circumstances change between annual canvasses. Whilst "rolling registration" is available and designed to allow the updating of the register where changes occur, notification of such changes mid-year remains voluntary under current arrangements.

Greater compulsion?

  6.5  Representative organisations and electoral administrators have pointed out to the Commission that, were a more assertive line to be adopted on prosecution and penalties for failure to return the annual canvass form, this could be frightening and arguably inappropriate particularly for some groups in society, notably elderly people, people with disabilities, those with learning difficulties, and those with English as a second language, who may have difficulty understanding the registration process.

  6.6  The Commission holds the view that resources are more effectively and appropriately spent on programmes and initiatives designed to encourage and educate about the importance of registration, rather than focused on deterrents for non-compliance with regard to the return of the annual canvass form.

  6.7  Were individual registration to be introduced, it would be appropriate to apply the current sanction for failure to provide information or false information to individuals rather than householders as at present. There is no automatic link between individual registration and compulsion. However, the nature of any penalties and process for pursuing non-registrants would require careful review.


  7.1  The available research suggests that the reasons for under-registration are many and various. They can be summarised as follows:

    —  Disengagement from the political process and politics generally—in other words, people do not register because they are not interested in voting;

    —  Avoiding "the authorities"—those seeking to avoid identification for criminal or other reasons;

    —  Concern about other uses of the register—the fact that the register is for purposes other than electoral purposes only, although this has been limited by regulation since 2002; [19]

    —  The lack of a facility for anonymous registration; and

    —  Assumption that data provided to one part of the local authority (eg council tax) will automatically lead to the electoral roll being updated or resentment by some members of the public to supplying their details to different council departments.

  7.2  Registration rates also vary across different socio-economic groups and the primary reasons for non-registration will be different for different groups. Based on 1993 data from OPCS (the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the predecessor of ONS), non-registration rates appear to vary by geographical area, by age, ethnicity and property ownership/tenure. The Commission's review of research in Voter engagement among back and minority ethnic communities supports these findings. Men were less likely to be registered than women, and those living in inner London are less likely to be registered than those living elsewhere. Those aged 17-29 are significantly less likely to be registered than older age groups, and there are higher levels of non-registration among BME communities and those in privately rented accommodation.

BME communities

  7.3  The Electoral Commission's 2002 research report Voter engagement among black and minority ethnic communities considers the issue of ethnic variations in levels of voter registration and provides an overview of research in this area. This is summarised briefly in the following paragraphs.

  7.4  Reasons given for non-registration among BME communities include: newness, language difficulty, alienation, concerns about anonymity and confidentiality, fear of harassment, fear of officialdom, administrative inefficiency and doubts about residence status. [20]Some of these factors can affect BME communities disproportionately not only in relation to the wider community, but also in relation to individual cases, particularly those relating to language difficulties and concerns about safety and fear of harassment.

  7.5  Registration among various communities can also vary in relation to the methods used by local Electoral Registration Officers. [21]Local authorities have contrasting policies on updating the register, resulting in different levels of accuracy. [22]

  7.6  The report also found that BME registration levels have increased substantially over recent years, though not uniformly for all groups. For example, Saggar's research into the 1997 general election found that people of black African heritage had one of the lowest registration levels at 87.1% compared with those of black Caribbean (96%), white (96.9%), Indian (96.9%), Pakistani (90.2%) and Bangladeshi (91.3%) heritage. [23]

  7.7  These findings shed more light on some of the variations across BME communities. It should be noted, however, that these particular findings are based upon relatively small numbers. Detailed analysis is also problematic because of the limited breakdown of ethnic categories available.

Geography, tenure and deprivation

  7.8  In urban areas and areas of economic deprivation, levels of non-registration are substantially higher, and it is not clear why this is so. In part, it is likely to be linked with wider social disengagement from key public institutions and deeper levels of political alienation. It is also likely to reflect a more transient population in metropolitan areas; where residents are in more settled communities the register experiences less change over time.

  7.9  There is also a link to the previous issue, as it is estimated that a high proportion of people from BME groups in the UK live in metropolitan areas. [24]

  7.10  In Northern Ireland, variations were pronounced between wards within constituencies and across Northern Ireland registration rates were highest in rural wards located in the west and south. We also found that people living in areas of high social deprivation were less likely to be registered and that owner-occupiers were more likely to be registered than those in housing executive or private rented accommodation.

  7.11  The Commission's current research project on registration is examining further the impact of geography and socio-economic factors on registration rates.


  8.1  The Commission sees the primary objective of an online register as helping to create a national register of electors, collated and managed locally. The Commission has reiterated this objective in several of its reports—and this also appears to be a goal shared by the Government, political parties and most electoral administrators.

  8.2   The issues relating to electronic registers and national registers are closely intertwined, as an electronic register is logistically and practically the only sensible way of achieving a national register.

  8.3  An online register could also facilitate the introduction of greater choice for electors in voting location. With paper-based records, the only way of minimising to an acceptable extent the risk of duplicate votes is by limiting electors to a single polling station at which their name can be checked on a paper record. With an electronic register which can be updated in real time, it would be possible to offer electors a choice of voting location—near their home, place or work or elsewhere.

  8.4  Furthermore, an electronic register could also facilitate greater access to voting for disabled people. The report by SCOPE, (Polls apart: a future for accessible democracy, 2002) noted with particular reference to pilot schemes with electronic electoral registers, that the schemes "allowed voters to vote at any polling station which may have enabled disabled people to visit the most accessible polling station or the one that best met their needs ie close to work, bus route etc."

  8.5  A move to an electronic register would also facilitate the further development of rolling registration, by enabling electoral registers to be continuously updated. This should ensure the production of the most-up-to-date register at any one time and so enhance the security and accuracy of the register.

CORE project

  8.6  In January 2004, the Government announced in Parliament its Co-ordinated On-line Register of Electors Project (CORE), to be managed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and co-sponsored by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. This project has been promoted by Government as an essential part of its electoral modernisation agenda and underpinning the goal of multi-channel, e-enabled elections. The Commission welcomes this initiative as well as the opportunity to contribute to its development.

  8.7  The Commission strongly believes that CORE should provide a basis for the introduction of individual registration, laying the foundations for the collection and management of additional information that would be necessary. It is therefore essential that any fundamental change to the registration process and the co-ordination of registers should be developed with clear objectives relating to business processes, and this should be an integral part of the planning and development of the CORE project.

  8.8  Moreover, the Commission considers that the CORE project is a key part of any future work relating to e-voting and e-counting pilots and the Government's goal of an e-enabled general election. It is therefore essential that the CORE project considers from the start the necessary synergies with the wider electoral modernisation programme and future electoral pilots.

  8.9  The Commission understands that the Government intends to publish shortly a strategy paper outlining its vision for electoral modernisation. In the context of the significant number of individual projects likely to be contained within the overall strategy, it is important that the Government makes clear its view of the relationship between the CORE project and other projects, including the possible introduction of individual registration.


  9.1  The Electoral Commission places a high importance on ease of access to the registration process. Being able to register as an elector is fundamental to the whole electoral process. If potential electors are unable to complete their forms and register for whatever reason, they will not be able to vote and so be denied any further access to the electoral process. This can be particularly relevant for people with visual impairments that prevent them from reading forms and for those people who have low levels of literacy or for whom English is not their first language.

  9.2  The Commission recognises that the current electoral registration form itself can be a barrier to registration. It is currently prescribed by statute, including the detail of what must be included. A lot of information has to be included on electoral registration forms and in some cases this has meant that very small print has been used, so that all the information can be fitted on to the form. Furthermore, because the information included has been prescribed by statute, it can appear bureaucratic and not friendly for users who have difficulties reading or understanding English. These people may need extra help in completing forms or have guidance produced in an alternative format, if possible.

  9.3  The Commission realises that this is a significant problem. In response to SCOPE Cwmpas Cymru's review of disability access (2003), volunteers reported that only a quarter of electoral registration officers made registration materials easily available in a variety of accessible formats. SCOPE Cwmpas Cymru's volunteers specifically stated that they would have liked Braille, large print forms and audiotape. Their research team requested examples of good practice from all 22 local authorities on improving access to the registration process. None were received.

  9.4  While recognising the limitations of the current legislation, and the necessity to produce a form to the same effect as that specified in regulations, the Commission has recommended that the electoral registration form be redesigned to make it more user-friendly.

  9.5  We have also recommended that, where possible, all electoral registration forms should:

    —  be written in clear, precise English or Welsh, where appropriate;

    —  give details of a helpline number that people can ring if they require assistance. It is helpful to also provide a textphone number, website address and email address;

    —  offer help with registration form filling for visually and learning impaired people;

    —  be printed in a clear font and using a minimum of 12 point whenever possible, although 14 point is more accessible;

    —  preferably be printed in black ink on a white background; and

    —  alternative formats and languages should be available on request.

  9.6  Some Electoral Registration Officers have provided guidance notes explaining how to complete forms. The Commission believes that this can be helpful to all electors and may make it possible to reduce the amount of text on the actual form. The guidance should be written in plain English and include symbols and pictures. This will help all electors, including those with low levels of literacy or who have limited understanding of the process.

  9.7  In the Commission's report on Equal access to democracy (2003), we recommended that the existing legal provisions for electoral pilot schemes should be extended to allow for piloting of schemes which involve Electoral Registration Officers asking for the individual access needs of electors at the point of registration, in order to meet those needs at election times. Our separate report The electoral registration process 2003) also recommended measures which would broaden access to registration, including registration on-line and extended opportunities for telephone registration.

  9.8  We are pleased that the Government has accepted many of the Commission's recommendations with regard to making voting more accessible for disabled and minority groups. However, we urge the Government to reconsider its position on some of the Commission's other recommendations such as alternative polling stations for the disabled, and Returning Officers having the power to provide sample ballot papers in polling stations in a variety of languages, Braille and large print.


  10.1  In terms of access to, and appropriate uses of, electoral registration data, the Commission's view remains as stated in our May 2003 report The electoral registration process:

    "the electoral register should be compiled exclusively for electoral purposes and other limited statutory purposes (such as summoning jurors) and it should not be made available for sale."

  10.2 The Commission has also been reviewing the related issue of access to the marked version of the electoral register. This review has examined, for example:

    —  whether the register should be available to political parties, constituency parties, candidates and holders of elective office for electoral purposes;

    —  whether the marked register should be available for public scrutiny;

    —  the role of the marked register in providing an audit trail for electoral administrators for security purposes by showing that a person has voted and thus safeguards against fraud and double counting.

  10.3  The Commission is due to release its report on access to the marked register within the next few weeks. A copy will be sent to the Committee on publication.


Means of ensuring the security of the register: PIN numbers, electoral voting cards, signatures

  11.1  We consider these two issues together, as they are closely linked. Under the current registration system in England, Wales and Scotland, the "head of household" is required to complete the annual canvass form or an individual registering through "rolling" registration is required to sign the form but is not required to provide any other means of identification.

  11.2  In our report, The electoral registration process, the Commission considered that individual voter identifiers would be an important contributor to the successful introduction of individual voter registration in England, Wales and Scotland. The Commission recognised that this is a complex matter and that, if individual registration were introduced, this need not be solely related to residence, as it is at present, and that other individual identifiers could be introduced.

  11.3  Accordingly, the Commission recommended that the following individual identifiers be required in England, Wales and Scotland:

    —  Name.

    —  Date of birth.

    —  Location-identifier (primarily an address plus other categories currently provided for, such as a declaration of local connection or service declaration).

    —  Signature.

    —  Unique registration number.

  11.4  The Commission's recommendation recognised the preference to maintain the link to local government and local constituency and so a location-identifier, primarily an address, would continue to be a necessary part of voter identification.

  11.5  The Commission believes that these identifiers should be enabled through primary legislation and the detail be addressed in secondary legislation, allowing more time for detailed consideration of the practical implementation.

  11.6  Individual voter identifiers are likely to be particularly important if means of broadening access to registration were introduced, such as online registration and means of registering by telephone were extended (currently only in operation in some localities and where there is "no change" of personal details). The Commission recognises that there is a balance to be struck between increasing the accessibility of registration and maintaining security and guarding against fraud.

  11.7  The question of voter identifiers is clearly also linked to elections themselves becoming fully electronic or "e-enabled". The availability of secure voter identifiers would not only allow for casting and recording a vote at any polling station within a constituency or ward, but would potentially assist in establishing remote voting from any location. Currently, a voter can vote only at a designated polling station, which may or may not be convenient or fully accessible to that particular voter. Broadening of access to polling stations and remote voting may assist voters with disabilities, particularly where their designated polling station is difficult to access. It would also remove a barrier to voting which analysts of voter behaviour identify as a significant reason for electors not turning out at elections—being unable to vote in their designated polling station on polling day for whatever personal reasons arise.

  11.8  In the case of Northern Ireland, those registering are also required to provide their date of birth and national insurance number as well as individual signature in addition to the information already required in the rest of the UK. Voters in Northern Ireland are required to produce one of four forms of prescribed photographic ID before being issued with a ballot paper. Those without the necessary photographic ID can apply for an electoral identity card.

  11.9  The Commission believes it important to recognise, however, that the additional identifiers required in Northern Ireland were introduced to combat allegations/perceptions of electoral fraud.

  11.10  In the rest of the UK, perception of electoral fraud is still considered to be low. The Commission is concerned in this case to ensure that opportunities for fraud do not increase as a result of broadening accessibility. The Commission recognises that public confidence in the paper based electoral system has traditionally been high and that the introduction of electronic systems will raise fears among some members of the public, justifiable or not, that on-line and electronic systems will be prey to hackers and fraudsters. It is a key issue for the Commission, therefore, to maintain high levels public confidence in the electoral process.

  11.11  It is important, in ensuring that the security of the electoral registration process is maintained, that new barriers to registering are not created which are likely to lower registration levels.

  11.12  The Commission believes that the allocation of a unique individual registration number upon registration, to be introduced at the same time as the introduction of individual registration, is the best way to proceed for England, Wales and Scotland. This number would remain unique to each individual for life and be maintained on the electoral register. Voters would not be required to remember his or her own number; the individual identifiers would provide sufficient identification where necessary where an individual moves residence, for example, and registration details need to be revised.

  11.13  The Commission notes the emergence of the ID card scheme as Government policy in the period since it published The electoral registration process. This initiative may provide the Government with a comprehensive national system of identification that might facilitate an individual voter registration system. However, the Commission would emphasise that it does not have any policy view on the introduction of the ID card scheme as proposed by the Government and it continues to believe in principle that measures which are introduced for electoral purposes should be concerned as far as possible with the electoral processes alone and not linked, unless clearly necessary, with non-electoral matters.


  12.1  Section 8 of this report has already noted the link between issues relating to electronic registers and those relating to national registers. The Commission supports the concept of having locally maintained registers across the UK that conform to common data standards and so enable a national approach to be taken.

  12.2  One potential benefit relates to the statutory requirement for political parties and the Commission to confirm the permissibility of individuals who make donations to political parties (who must be on the electoral register). Given the number of different data formats currently used to store electoral registers, it is currently quicker for the Commission to check with local authorities in order to confirm the permissibility of donors, despite the fact that we receive copies of the registers. National access would enable the Commission to fulfil its statutory duties in relation to the rules on permissible donors more efficiently and more accurately. Being able to undertake searches ourselves would also ease the burden on Electoral Registration Officers, as they would no longer need to submit register data to the Commission and we would not need to contact them for information relating to the electoral register.

  12.3 National access would also allow parties a more efficient and accurate method for checking donor permissibility and should therefore enable them to comply more effectively with the requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA).

  12.4  One further benefit that might be gained from national access mechanisms could be to facilitate periodic research keeping under review the extent of non-registration and the impact of rolling registration and other practical initiatives designed to increase registration levels. At present, the absence of a centrally held electronic register (in lieu of numerous, dispersed individual registers) creates significant logistical challenges for any research seeking to compare the registered and eligible populations to ascertain non-registration. As well as improving accessibility, an electronic register would permit the electronic matching of registration and population records—a less time and resource-intensive process than manual matching.

—  (1996) Race and Elections, Routledge, London.

—  (1990) "Ethnic minorities and the electoral process: some recent developments", in H Goulbourne (ed), Black Politics in Britain, Gower, London.

9   The Electoral Fraud (NI) Act 2002. Back

10   Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations (2001) and its equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Back

11   The Electoral Commission (2002) Voter engagement and young people. Back

12   The Electoral Commission (2004) Delivering democracy? The future of postal voting, p 72. Back

13   The Government's response to Voting for change (2004), p 3. Back

14   Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (1993), Electoral registration in 1991Back

15   The Commission's 2003 report The Electoral Fraud Act (Northern Ireland) -An assessment of its first year of operation included an estimate of the extent of non-registration, as well as an investigation of the reasons for this. Back

16   The Electoral Commission (2002) Voter engagement and young people, p 6. Back

17   The Electoral Commission, (2002). Back

18   The Government's response to Voting for change (2004), p 10. Back

19   The Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations (2002) and equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Back

20   Anwar, M., (1998) (1998a) Ethnic Minorities and the British Electoral System, CRER and OBV, University of Warwick. Back

21   Smith, S. (1993) Electoral Registration in 1991, OPCS Social Survey Division, HMSO, London. Back

22   LGA (2000) The Only Way Is Up. Increasing Turnout in Local Government Elections, LGA, London. Back

23   Saggar, S. (1998a) The General Election 1997: Ethnic Minorities and Electoral Politics, Commission for Racial Equality, London. Back

24   Population Trends (2001), HMSO, London. Back

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