Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration

Written evidence submitted by Jenny Watson, Chair, the Electoral Commission (EA 39)

Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Tenth Report-Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration

I am writing following the publication of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report on the Government’s proposals for introducing individual electoral registration (IER) in Great Britain.

The Committee’s inquiry has highlighted the value of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government’s proposals, and its report reflects and adds to the wide support for the introduction of IER, which we have recommended since 2003. The report has also highlighted the significant concerns raised by the Commission and others about some of the Government’s proposals.

We are pleased that the Committee supports the key changes which we recommended should be made to the Government’s proposals to ensure the effective implementation of IER. In particular, the Committee has recognised the strength and breadth of concerns about the potential impact of the proposed registration ‘opt out’ policy, and recommend that this should be dropped.

I am sure that the Government will give the Committee’s report serious consideration as it takes forward proposals into legislation. Beyond the removal of the "opt-out" there is now a valuable opportunity for the Government to revisit the proposals set out in the White Paper and make the key changes that are needed:

• Requiring EROs to run a full household canvass in 2014, to ensure that the subsequent process of collecting identifying information from each elector identified as eligible is based on information which is as accurate as possible. This would mean that more people will be contacted directly to invite them to register individually, reducing the potential costs involved in subsequent follow-up activity. (Committee recommendation 10).

• Publishing a detailed implementation plan at the same time as they introduce legislation on IER to the UK Parliament (Committee recommendation 14).

• Ensuring that the change is delivered consistently and that electors receive a consistent service across Great Britain. In particular, they should consider our proposal that the Commission should be given a power to intervene where necessary, to ensure that EROs take steps to meet agreed performance standards (Committee recommendation 15).

• Ensuring that sufficient funding is available for the activities involved in implementing the change from household to individual electoral registration (Committee recommendation 16).

The Committee also made a number of additional recommendations in its report, including recommendations for the Electoral Commission, and we will be considering these further over the coming weeks. Our initial response to those recommendations is set out in the note attached to this letter.

Finally, we recommended in our response to the Government's White Paper that the UK Government and Parliament should consider extending the PCR Committee’s role specifically to cover scrutiny of the IER implementation process. This will ensure that IER maintains visibility beyond the passage of the IER Bill and that political parties, parliamentarians and other stakeholders are given further opportunities to monitor the change. It would be helpful to understand the Committee’s views on this issue.

Should you wish to discuss any of the issues I have raised in this letter in more detail, I would be very happy to meet with you.

I have written in similar terms to Mark Harper MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform.

Electoral Commission initial response to Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Tenth Report-Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration

Further Committee recommendations

· The Committee recommends that the Government consider further how to ensure that the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers is maintained during the implementation of IER by ensuring that people who do not have a National Insurance number are not disadvantaged (PCR Committee recommendation 6), and improving data sharing between Electoral Registration Officers (PCR Committee recommendation 9).

We will work with the Government to develop plans for supporting those most vulnerable during the implementation of IER. We have also recommended that the Government should set out how it will ensure that redundant duplicate electoral registration records can be identified once IER has been implemented.

· The Committee recommends that the edited register should be abolished (PCR Committee recommendation 8).

The Commission believes that the electoral register should be used only for electoral purposes and a limited range of statutory security and crime-prevention purposes, and supports the abolition of the edited register.

The sale and use of the edited register has been the subject of several consultations in recent years, but neither the current nor the previous Government have published any response to those consultations. The Government should set out clearly whether or not it intends to retain the edited register.

· The Committee recommends that the Government consider applying the same carry-forward arrangements for the 2015 General Election to postal and proxy registrations as to other registrations (PCR Committee recommendation 12).

The Commission has supported the Government’s proposal to require people who wish to retain their absent vote facility to register individually, including providing the required personal identifiers. Several recorded cases of alleged electoral malpractice in recent years have involved fraudulent electoral registration applications which have been used to request and use postal votes in an attempt to influence the outcome of elections. We recognise, however, the concern highlighted by the Committee that some people may not realise what they need to do to retain their absent vote, and we will work with the Government and EROs to ensure that any new requirements are well publicised throughout the implementation of IER.

· The Committee recommends that the Government consider dropping the requirement of a signature as a personal identifier to cast a postal vote once IER is well-established (PCR Committee recommendation 13).

We do not support the removal of the signature as one of the personal identifiers currently required for returned postal ballot packs, unless an appropriately secure alternative can be identified. The introduction of personal identifier checking provisions for postal ballot packs in 2007 has been an important element of the approach to improving confidence in the security of postal voting, and the signature requirement continues to provide a verifiable link between the person purporting to be the relevant elector and the original applicant.

The Commission has collected evidence since 2007 showing that a proportion of returned postal ballot packs are not able to be included in the count because the personal identifiers provided do not match those supplied at the time of the absent vote application. We have recommended that the Government should bring forward proposals to change the law so that Electoral Registration Officers are able to request updated identifiers after an election to ensure that postal ballot packs are not rejected at future elections. If implemented by the Government, our recommendations would address the Committee's concerns about any deterioration in the reliability of electors’ signatures over time.

· The Committee suggests that there may be a need for better central coordination and ministerial oversight of the data matching programme (PCR Committee recommendation 18).

The process of implementing IER provides an important opportunity to reconsider the way electoral registers in Great Britain are compiled and maintained, and the improved use of data matching will be an important part of the range of tools available to EROs in future. We continue to support the development of data-matching techniques, and would welcome the opportunity to consider with the Government how best to ensure that lessons from the current group of schemes are incorporated into any further schemes or future legislation.

Recommendations for the Electoral Commission

The Committee also made two specific recommendations directed to the Electoral Commission.

· The Commission’s public information campaign around the launch of individual registration includes as an important element strands aimed at encouraging those in groups currently under-represented on the electoral rolls to register to vote (PCR Committee recommendation 6).

We intend to design our public awareness strategy to target groups who are currently under-represented on the electoral register, building on the evidence and successes of our existing work. We would be happy to discuss our approach with the Government and the Committee.

· The Electoral Commission should publish its evaluations of the pilots before second reading of the Bill, in order to inform debate (PCR Committee recommendation 17).

It is of course important that Parliament has up-to-date information and evidence about the impact of data matching schemes as it considers any legislation brought forward by the Government. Although we are required to publish our evaluation of the current data matching schemes by March 2012, and we are confident that we will meet that deadline, we will monitor the progress of legislation through Parliament and make every effort to make our findings available in time for Parliament to take account of them. We cannot, however, publish unreliable or incomplete findings before our evaluation has concluded.

Draft electoral administration provisions

Finally, the Committee also highlighted the recommendations for changes to electoral legislation which the Commission has made in a number of election reports in recent years, and which we set out in our evidence to the Committee and response to the White Paper. The Government should take advantage of the important opportunity of legislation relatively early in this Parliament to make the changes that we have recommended in time for the next UK Parliamentary general election in 2015:

· Change the law to make clear that eligible electors who are entitled to vote at a polling station and who are in the queue to enter the polling station at the close of poll will be allowed to vote.

· Change the law to give Electoral Registration Officers powers to request refreshed personal identifiers from absent voters to ensure that a greater proportion of votes are able to be counted for future elections (see PCR Committee recommendation 13 above).

· Provide a power for the Electoral Commission to specify modifications to the wording or appearance of specified voter-facing forms and notices to make them easier for voters to understand or use.

· Amend the rules for all types of election should be amended to specifically allow Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) to enter polling stations.

The Government should also set out how it in more detail intends to take forward the Commission’s recommendations for further work in two specific areas:

· Examining the case for requiring electors to show identification at polling stations in Great Britain.

· Examining the case for introducing a system of advance voting, which would enable people to vote at a central polling station between one and seven days before traditional polling day.

November 2011

Prepared 8th December 2011