Written evidence submitted by Dr Toby
S James, Department of Political and Cultural Studies, Swansea
1. The Government has recently published proposals
to reform election administration in Britain (Deputy Prime Minister,
2011). There are numerous changes in the proposals but the principal
ones are the introduction of individual electoral registration
(hereafter "IER") and voluntary electoral registration.
2. This briefing aims to map out the likely impact
that IER might have. It does so by noting some of the findings
of published research on election administration but also draws
from interview evidence that the author has collected as part
of an ongoing research project on election administration.
3. IER would be one of the most significant changes
to election administration that Britain has seen since becoming
a democracy. It will force electoral administrators to undertake
significant and costly administrative changes. At a time when
a number of other changes are being made to electoral law in the
UK, and local government budgets are being cut, there are concerns
about the funding of elections.
4. Levels of registration in the UK have been
in decline for some years (Electoral Commission, 2010b). The paper
suggests that IER is very likely to accelerate this decline. Although
it is not considered in depth in this briefing, it is anticipated
that voluntary registration is also likely to reduce the numbers
on the electoral register.
5. If IER is to be introduced then it is recommended
long-term funding of election administration is duly considered,
given the context of local government cuts.
provisions should be put in place to boost voter registration
such as enabling voter registration when citizens access other
government services. Lessons can be drawn from overseas innovations.
of voter accessibility are fully considered.
views of citizens towards the registration process should be carefully
monitored towards the registration process once during and after
the implementation of IER.
IN UK ELECTION
6. There have been very few changes to electoral
registration in the UK until recently. Electoral registration
has been the responsibility of local government since the Representation
of the People Act 1918. The Electoral Registers Act 1949 made
persons of age between November and June each year to be included
in the electoral register. Electoral registration has largely
been unchanged until the turn of the century.
7. New Labour undertook an electoral modernisation
programme while in office but most of the changes related to the
procedures for casting a vote. The Representation of the People
Act 2000 introduced continuous rather than annual registration,
provisions for the homeless, citizens in psychiatric wards and
remand prisoners to be included onto the register. The Electoral
Administration Act 2006 introduced performance standards for local
authorities and placed a legal requirement for them to undertake
door-knocking as part of the annual canvass. The aim was on improving
registration rates and targeting "democracy deserts"
(James, 2010b, 2011).
8. There is strong support for individual registration
from many organisations. The Electoral Commission has supported
Individual Registration since 2003 (Electoral Commission, 2003).
The "Birmingham case" in 2004, when election court uncovered
fraud in local elections in two wards, led to even greater calls
for its introduction (Stewart, 2006). These have come from The
Committee of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster (2004), The
Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (2005: 1),
the Committee for Standards in Public Life (2007: 6-7), and the
Association of Electoral Administrators (2010).
9. The Labour Government was initially resistant
to this because it was concerned about the effect that this might
have on the electoral register. However, political concerns were
also important because there is evidence that they thought that
it would be their voters that would be more likely to drop off
the register (James, 2010b).
10. One of the stated objectives of individual
registration is concerns about fraud. According to the White Paper
"In the past decade there have been abuses of this system
which have shaken the public's confidence in the security of our
elections" (Deputy Prime Minister, 2011: 5).
11. There have been some cases of high profile
fraud, notably in Birmingham in 2004. Stuart Wilks-Heeg has provided
detailed data on levels of convictions in the UK (Wilks-Heeg,
12. However, levels of voter fraud are ultimately
unknown because of the problems involved in measuring them. As
prominent American scholars Michael Alvarez et al. put it:
are fraud accusations like airplane
crashesinfrequent but focusing events that we remember;
or are accusations of fraud more like car accidents, events that
occur frequently but where only the most dramatic make the news?"
(Alvarez, Hall, & Hyde, 2008: 10)
13. A recent study of voter fraud in the US has
shown that while there are many allegations of fraud, often these
are without evidence and politically constructed (Minnite, 2010).
14. There have been concerns about the way in
which elections have been administered but these do not principally
relate to fraud. The most famous cases of problems were reported
in the Scottish 2007 elections (Denver, Johns, & Carmen, 2009)
and the UK General Election 2010 (Electoral Commission, 2010a).
Analysis of these elections pinpointed the degree of complexity
in electoral law, the number of simultaneous elections and poor
ballot design by election officials as sources of problems (also
see: Association of Electoral Administrators, 2011; Gould, 2007).
15. Research has identified a long term decline
in registration rates in the UK. This was about 95% of the voting
age population in the 1950s and 1960s. Estimates based on Census
records suggest that the completeness of the registers was at
93.5% in 1980, 91-3% in 1990 and 91-2% in 2000 (Electoral Commission,
16. There are therefore other pressing problems
facing British elections in addition to fraud and perceptions
17. It is well established in the political science
literature that different forms of election administration can
affect voter participation. There is a plethora of studies from
political scientists in the U.S. dating back to at least the 1930s
(Harris, 1934), but this research has accelerated over the last
thirty years, especially since the U.S. 2000 Presidential election.
18. This often deploys a rational choice logic
that some forms of election administration create barriers to
participation by increasing the "costs" of registering
to vote and casting a vote. Individuals will be more likely to
register to vote and cast their ballot when it is more convenient
to do so (Wolfinger & Rosenstone, 1980).
19. Research has differentiated between procedures
which are "expansive" ie increase participation and
those which are "restrictive" i.e. reduce participation.
I have recently developed a continuum which categorises each of
the procedures according to scientific research (Table 1).
A CONTINUUM OF REGISTRATION PROCEDURES BASED
ON THEIR EFFECTS ON ELECTORAL TURNOUT, ADAPTED FROM JAMES (2010A:
|Major restrictive effect||Minor restrictive effect
||Marginal restrictive effect||Neutral
||Marginal expansive effect||Minor expansive effect
||Major expansive effect|
|Excessively early registration deadlines.|
Infrequent updates to the register.
|Annual updates to the register.|
Annual purges of the canvass.
Purge of non-voters.
|15 day registration deadline.|
Continuous updates to the register.
In person registration.
Citizen's responsibility to register.
|Registration office opens at weekends.|
Registration possible in public service agencies and "Motor voter" schemes.
House to House enquiries.
Online / mail / phone return of registration form.
State responsibility to register.
|No registration requirements.||
20. Individual registration is currently categorised as a
restrictive procedure, although the evidence base upon which this
placed is limited. Most countries operate individual rather than
household registration so there have been few opportunities for
researchers to assess the effects of the change from one to the
other. Inferences are therefore taken from the experience in Northern
21. Individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland
after the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. The same
legislation simultaneously ended the annual carry forward of names
of individuals who did not register each year. Photographic identification
was also introduced.
22. There was an immediate drop in the register from 1,192,136
to 1,072,346a "loss" of 119,790 names or approximately
10% of the electorateand a registration rate of 86%. By
the third register, published in September 2004, 1,075,439 names
were includedjust 82% of the eligible population (Price-Waterhouse
Coopers, 2006: 3-4) (see Figure 1 below).
23. Registration rates subsequently improved after countervailing
expansive provisions were introduced. The Electoral Registration
(Northern Ireland) Act 2005 gave the Government the power to temporarily
reinstate names on the register. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous
Provisions) Act 2006 ended the need for citizens to re-register
24. Multiple simultaneous changes make scientific analysis
of the effects very difficult. There have been many different
interpretations about whether the reduced numbers reflected "real"
people or not. However, it is very likely that individual registration
leads to lower registration rates than household registration.
25. If individual registration is implemented, there are a
range of other procedures that could be introduced using the continuum
to offset a decline in registration levels. These would include
making online registration possible, which is proposed in the
White Paper. It could also include making registration possible
when citizens access other government services and contact other
agencies. The National Voter Registration Act was introduced in
the U.S. in 1993 to enable all citizens to register to vote when
they applied for a driving licence and this now accounts for a
substantial amount of registrations in most states. Registration
could also be made possible when citizens pay council tax bills,
visit Job Centres or access other services.
26. I am undertaking a research project on the impact of performance
standards on election administration in the UK. At the time of
writing, I have interviewed 33 senior elections staff across 18
local authorities in England and Wales and intend to interview
staff in further authorities during 2011.
These are typically the Returning Officers, Electoral Registration
Officers, Democratic Service Managers and Electoral Services Managers.
The latter have comprehensive experience in managing the canvassers
who collect registration information and managing teams who input
the forms into databases.
27. As U.S. academics Donald P. Maoynihan and Carol L. Silva
note, of U.S. electoral administrators:
"our knowledge on the views of LEOs [local election officials]
remains impoverished. LEOs are the administrators of democracy.
Their actions can disenfranchise voters, subvert the political
process, and damage public confidence in democracy
is a].. need to understand LEO attitudes toward election administration
and reform, as this knowledge can help explain election outcomes
and the success of mandates for change" (Moynihan & Silva,
28. Their views are also significant because academic literature
from public administration suggests that "top-down"
implementation of policies can often face implementation problems
and unforeseen consequences.
29. Many of the LEO's suggested that they were supportive
of the idea of individual registration. Some thought that it would
help to alleviate concerns about electoral fraud, as proposed.
According to one:
"I think something needs to be done to reassure the electorate
that there is some form of double-checking that, you know, everybody
needs to produce a PIN number or a signature for most things they
do nowadays so, perhaps that's what will reassureput a
bit more confidence back in the system."
Others suggested that it was necessary modernisation of procedures
that were now out of date. IER was described as "overdue"
and HER as outdated. According to one LEO:
"This idea of a household form is from a very, very old
fashioned time when the head of the household filled the form
in. So, from that point of view I think it's great."
According to another:
"Britain is way behind the rest of world. It's archaic
that you have household registration."
30. However, three clusters of concerns or arguments against
it were raised. The
first theme of concerns was about the costs and administrative
burdens that they thought would fall on local government because
"I think the biggest concern now is that all that it's
doing is adding to the bureaucracy
Because with the annual
canvass, you could do it by household, with individual registration,
you've got almost, you know, for every single person some sort
of contact with them. For us, all we can see is almost all the
costs, you know, in monetary terms, and also how we're going to
be managing the systems ourselves, and we're going to have to
put extra resources in to managing all this.
Some therefore expressed concerns that they might need additional
canvassers and that every visit to households would take longer
because of the need to complete a form for each person. One local
authority expected that their staff would need to double to deal
with the implementation. The Government's White Paper proposes
paying for the introduction of IER but LEOs expressed concern
for how long this money would be available for and whether it
would in practice cover the whole cost to the authority of the
implementation. Moreover, they expressed concerns that IER was
being implemented at a time when funding to local government was
being by central government and departments were asked to make
savings. Election budgets are not ring-fenced. According to one
"We are in a world where we have got no money and they
are acting as if it is endless."
According to another:
"I tried to persuade them [the Council] the other day
that we needed an extra member of staff. When everywhere else
is shrinking here is an area that is expanding and could well
expand with individual registration."
31. Related to this, concerns were expressed about late implementation.
Electoral administrators have often complained that they have
been put under undue pressure because of the late passage of legislation
(Association of Electoral Administrators, 2011). Fears were concerned
that the same could happen with individual registration. According
to one participant:
"I think it'll be a very big change to manage, and we
need very clear guidance and plenty of time to get it up and running,
and not it all to be left to the last minute, because that's my
32. A second theme of concerns reported by LEOs was about
data quality. This may make IER difficult to administer because
it might cause costs to increase and might even cause voter disenfranchisement
in some cases. On the one hand the public were often prone to
make errors on their forms. One LEO worked in an authority that
had piloted internet voting and reported that some citizens, especially
the elderly, found difficulty in providing key identifiers that
were necessary for the system to work. According to her:
"[individual registration] is designed by these intelligent
people who don't realise how daft some of the members of the public
can be. It's a lovely idea but when I was in xxxx
to] get them to supply their national insurance number. We had
one woman every year would give you her national insurance number.
Every year you'd write to her and say "That's not your national
insurance number." It turned out it was her gas mask number
from the war and she was convinced that was her national insurance
number and there's no way you could get any other number out of
33. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 required those applying
for postal votes to supply a signature and their date of birth
as personal identifiers. However, a number of LEOs reported that
the date of births did not always match. This forced them to have
to interpret whether the application was valid or not. One LEO
described their predicament:
"On postal votes the number of people that don't know
their date of birth, you wouldn't believe it actually. We don't
reject them all because the legislation actually says "If
you're satisfied that it's that person
." So you look
at it and you think "Oh the signature's the same, the writing
or the numbers look similar, alright this one's five years out,
that one's a month out, that one's got something completely different."
If it's completely different you think "Yes, you know, you
can't change from 2 October to 27 April."
34. This highlights the importance of clear and consistent
guidance for LEOs about when an application should be included
or not. Much of the controversy in the U.S. Presidential election
centred on whether the "clear intent of the voter" was
clear and the inconsistent way in which different officials applied
35. Data quality issues may also arise because of data conflicts
between different government information systems, LEOs thought.
This might be the case when names had been inputted by an administrator
who was unfamiliar with a name because it came from a different
"if somebody's name's, let's say me for example, my name
is spelt, first name is with a K with the national insurance people
and if I'm getting benefits with the WDP, you know, it's with
a Q and when [Council A] collects that information "Oh they
are two different people." Are you with me, they will have
to do more investigation. These are the same person, you'll have
to write to the person and stuff like that at the moment it's
being discovered. So having a long discussion with [x] this week
I think we both came to the conclusion that we would probably
end up with six or seven records for each person in the Borough."
36. One LEO therefore claimed that the key strategic problem
task was deciding which unique identifier should be used for IER:
"What's the unique identifier because I think it comes
absolutely for me to that issue. Do you use NI numbers for instance
as the kind of identifier for people's individual registration
ID or do you use NHS numbers which are a bit more secure and less
in circulation and less fraudulent than NI numbers are in practice?
Or do you introduce something else? Do you use passport number?
There's a whole host of identifiers and we've got to get to the
bottom of that really before we then can build up a system that
uses that as its prime currency, that's secure, that's trusted,
and that engages with other government systems, various guises,
and I see that as the fulcrum of the ability to introduce individual
registration actively and securely."
37. A third theme of concern raised in the interviews was
the impact that IER would have on levels of registration. Many
LEOs described problems with apathy amongst the electorate. They
suggested that IER would impose an additional administrative burden
on citizens which would further discourage prospective registrants:
"Well the likelihood is that the registration rate will
take a nosedive
I've already mentioned about the apathy
which surrounds elections and the difficulty of getting people
to return the forms, at the moment we're only trying to get one
form per household, in the future we're going to try and get in
every individual within that household to return a separate form
so I think the problems will be amplified and that the registration
rate will nosedive."
"We've got the prospect of individual registration on
the horizon. I'm not sure that's a good thing, because I want
to see electors registered and I don't want to do anything that
will put them off doing so and I'm a bit concerned that what's
been proposed, if it actually comes to fruition, will put people
off registering. People want things easy these days, you know,
they don't want life complicated, and asking for their national
insurance number is going to complicate things."
"It would be a shame if we end up with registration [levels]
personally affected. I think we can't put the voter off. The voter's
got to find whatever system's got to be easy, quick, that's what
modern life's about, isn't it, people only do things if it's easy
38. Some LEOs pinpointed the young and students as groups
where registration levels would drop the most.
"I think it's going to be very, very difficult to collect
the information from all these people. I've got a 17 year old
son, I can't imagine he's going to be the least bit interested
in filling in a registration form to be honest. I think this voluntary
element is going to mean that registration levels will drop."
"[I]f the parent doesn't put that young person's name
on the form we won't get that young person on there. And I think
we're going to lose a large chunk of registration. I think we
are unless it becomes compulsory or unless they begin to register
from 16 onward and allow the vote from 16 onward."
"[P]ersonally I think we will see a dip in registration.
It's going to be harder to get registrations. For instance, students,
who aren't always living at home, they may be living away. At
the moment, the present system is, you know, the mother or father
can register for them, but actually trying to capture them on
an individual registration is going to be quite difficult for
ourselves, and there's quite a lot of logistical problems that
we're going to face on that, I think."
39. Other LEOs suggested that IER may raise accessibility
issues for non-English speaking citizens and argued that it needs
to implemented in a way that supports qualities. Under HER, co-habitant
may help them with their form and this might make registration
"We have got some issues in the sense that we have got
quite a large black minority ethnic community, big chunks of which
are not necessarily culturally attuned to the life in the UK.
Many of whom don't speak English as their first language; those
are all a whole host of barriers that you need to get across.
It is going to be made worse with individual registration although
there are some benefits to individual registration which are around
postal vote fraud."
One LEO suggested that some citizens may not be comfortable providing
confidential data on the doorstep to canvassers because citizens
may find canvassing for such detailed information intrusive:
"If they haven't responded, do you get their National
Insurance number off them on the door step with their date of
birth? A lot of people are going to say, "I'm not going to
give you my
" Somebody that's just called round to the
door, "What's your National Insurance number, what's your
date of birth?"
40. One final strand to this theme was a concern that the
new procedures may take time to embed in. According to one LEO:
"it will take time for people to understand the difference
and how to in fact do it."
41. This briefing has considered the likely impact of IER
on British elections. It has drawn from some recently published
research and interviews with LEOs.
42. The published research on election administration suggests
that registration levels and voting turnout decline when additional
administrative burdens are placed on citizens. This and the experience
from Northern Ireland firmly suggest that there will be a decline
is registration levels if IER is introduced. This would accelerate
the declining rates of registration in the UK.
43. The interviews illustrate LEO views on IER and locate
some possible implementation problems and effects on British elections.
There is some support for the principle of IER amongst LEOs. However,
there are three core concerns about its implementation.
44. Firstly, they perceive it to involve additional costs
and administrative burdens. The proposals come at a time when
local government budgets are being cut and election resources
are not ring-fenced. Measures should be put in place to ensure
sufficient long-term funding of elections.
45. Secondly, they expect data quality to be a key issue.
The Government is already undertaking data-matching projects and
the results of these should be carefully considered.
46. Thirdly, they expect registration levels to decline, especially
amongst the young. Concerns about electoral participation have
been frequently expressed in the UK, especially amongst this group
(Tongue, 2009). If IER is introduced into the UK then there are
strong arguments for monitoring registration levels closely. It
may be necessary to offset the effects of IER with other expansive
methods of voter registration perhaps drawing from overseas experience.
47. The data-matching pilots may make it easier to target
those citizens who are not registered. However, it may also discourage
citizens from registering to vote if they think that their name
on the register will be used for other purposes. The views
of citizens towards the registration process should be carefully
monitored towards the registration process through survey research
once during and after the implementation of IER.
48. The Coalition has introduced many other changes to elections
in the UK. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies
Act, 2011 Act will require the re-drawing of all constituencies
based on the number of citizens within a district. This is enormous
change by itself. However, if registration levels are altered
by the introduction of individual registration then this process
may have to be undertaken again when the size of the new electorate
is known. The 2020 general election will have a different map
to 2015. The Coalition also proposes to introduce elections for
Police Commissioners. This too will involve significant work and
change. Overall, there is a risk of administrative overload.
Toby S James is a Lecturer in the Department of Political
and Cultural Studies at Swansea University. He completed a PhD
on election administration at University of York and was previously
a British Research Council Scholar the Library of Congress, Washington
D.C. He has recently published articles on election administration
in journals such as Election Law Journal, British Politics, Contemporary
Politics and Political Studies Review. He is writing a book on
election administration that will be published with Palgrave Macmillan.
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This research is generously funded by the Nuffield Foundation
and McDougall Trust. Further information about the project is
available here: http://www.tobysjames.com/election_laws_1.html
and http://www.swan.ac.uk/artsandhumanities/riah/videos/drtobyjames/ Back
LEOs sometimes expressed concern about individual registration
in general before the White Paper was published. Back