Voter engagement in the UK - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

4  Recent developments

Individual Electoral Registration

41. By far the most significant change that has been made to electoral administration during the course of the 2010 Parliament is the move, in Great Britain, to Individual Electoral Registration (IER), where each eligible elector will need to register to vote individually, as compared to the previous system where one member of a household completed an electoral registration form on behalf of all members of the household. The main rationale for introducing IER was to help to tackle electoral fraud and improve confidence in the electoral register,[95] although the Electoral Commission has also stated that it is right that "people are able to take individual responsibility for their own vote."[96] IER went live in England and Wales on 10 June 2014, and in Scotland on 19 September 2014 (it has been operating in Northern Ireland since 2002). Under the new system, people need to provide identifying information, such as their date of birth and national insurance number, when applying to register, and applications need to be verified before voters are added to the register. We have previously reported on the Government's White Paper and draft Bill for IER that was published in 2011, and found that there was general agreement in principle that IER was the right move for electoral registration in Great Britain, but raised some concerns about the implementation of IER.[97] We have since held a number of follow up sessions looking at readiness for the implementation phase.[98]


42. Electoral registration in the UK is not compulsory, but the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 does provide for Electoral Registration Officers to "require [a] person to make an application for registration by a specified date", and impose a civil penalty on anyone failing to do so.[99] The Government stated in 2012:

    This will provide appropriate encouragement for people to do their civic duty and register to vote. However, it is not our intention to see large numbers of people fined, and so there will be safeguards in place to ensure that EROs are required to take specific steps to encourage an application and only those who refuse repeated invitations can be fined.[100]

It is also an offence under the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 to fail to comply with a request for information from an ERO.[101]

43. We believe it is an inseparable part of the UK's social contract that in a democracy every citizen should, as a bare minimum, register to vote. We recommend that the legal requirements to register to vote are clarified, and that this basic civil duty be enforced.


44. As part of the transition to IER, the names and addresses of electors currently on the electoral register are being matched with records held on the Department for Work and Pensions database. Electoral Registration Officers are also matching electoral register records with local authority databases. Individuals whose records can be matched are automatically "confirmed" on to the new electoral register, while those who are not confirmed will be contacted and told that they need to register individually. Every person currently on the electoral register will be written to by their Electoral Registration Officer stating either that they have been confirmed and need to take no further action, or that they have not been confirmed and need to register individually. We were told by the Electoral Commission in September that around 12 local authorities had delayed the write-out due to IT issues, but that this would not "significantly impact upon the overall programme".[102]

45. When we spoke to Jenny Watson in September 2014, she gave us some provisional data on the confirmation process, telling us:

    The national match rate with the DWP is running at 79% so far and the national match rate following local data matching is running at 86% so far, so you can see that the local data matching is playing an important part. The variation in the match rate across England and Wales with DWP varies from 47% to 87%, so that gives you the scale of the variation across the country. The variation after the local data matching is added in is between 70% and 97%.[103]

Phil Thompson, Research and Evaluation Manager at the Electoral Commission, also stated:

    the local data matching does appear to be dealing quite well with groups who we knew would not get matched through DWP, people who are moving around a lot, private renters, young people, that kind of thing. So it does look like local matching with council tax and other data sources is picking up that kind of group of people.[104]

46. The Electoral Commission published its report on the confirmation process in England and Wales on 22 October 2014. The key findings were:

·  Approximately 36.9 million electoral register entries were matched (corresponding to 87% of the total number of records on the electoral registers sent for matching).

·  5.5 million electors could not be positively matched with the DWP database or through local data matching (LDM) and could therefore not be automatically transferred onto the new IER registers.

·  The proportion of electors matched at local authority and ward level varied considerably.

·  The match rate for attainers—people aged 16 and 17 who will turn 18 during the period the register is in force—has declined significantly since the test of confirmation. It is down to 52% from 86% in 2013.

·  329 EROs reported undertaking local data matching while 19 did not. Some of these 19 are planning to carry out local data matching work later in the transition period.[105]

Jenny Watson told us: "Despite this encouraging progress, there is much work still to be done during the next stage of the transition. EROs now need to focus their efforts on targeting the existing electors whose entries could not be matched, as well as those not currently on the registers at all."[106]


47. Under IER, it is now possible to register to vote online at, although it is still possible to register by post using a form. Several witnesses told us that the option to register online could have substantial positive effects for registration rates, particularly for young people. Both Toni Pearce of the NUS and Michael Sani from Bite the Ballot gave a warm welcome to the option to register to vote online, with Toni Pearce saying it "would have a massive impact on the number of young people registered to vote."[107] Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote also told us he was "encouraged that the Electoral Commission and the Government will soon have online voter registration."[108] John Turner, Chief Executive of the AEA, told us "there will be some benefit and improvement in what is largely going to be the digital route into registration now, but it won't solve all of the problems."[109] Jenny Watson told us:

    The move to individual electoral registration, and in particular the new system of online registration that went live successfully on 10 June, gives us some real opportunities and there is enthusiasm both in the electoral community and beyond about how we can explore new ways to engage with voters to get them registered now we have a modern registration system.[110]

48. When we spoke to Jenny Watson most recently, she told us that "feedback on the online system itself, from those who have used it, has been positive so far, but there is still a huge amount of work to do."[111] The Minister told us on 9 September:

    Since the launch of IER, the digital service has processed 1.5 million applications. Over 80% of these were made through online registration; over 90% of users have provided feedback saying they are very satisfied.[112]

40% of new applications to register to vote were from people under the age of 35.[113] As of 16 October 2014, 1.8 million applications to register to vote had been made online.[114]


49. As part of ongoing monitoring of the implementation of IER, the Electoral Commission will be producing several reports throughout the transition phase. These include:

·  October 2014—on the confirmation process;[115]

·  February 2015—on the write-out and canvass, and

·  June 2015—on the May 2015 elections.

Jenny Watson told us that "At every stage we will also give an assessment on progress against our performance standards." [116] The Commission will not be able to report on the completeness and accuracy of the first electoral register produced under IER until after June 2015.[117]


50. Although several of our witnesses were positive about the possible impact of IER, we also heard concerns that the new system could have an adverse impact on registration levels and voter turnout,[118] and could have a particularly adverse impact on certain groups. When Northern Ireland moved to individual electoral registration in 2002, the first electoral register produced under the new system had 10% fewer names than the final register produced under the previous system.[119] Dr Toby James stated that his research "suggests that [IER] will have a negative effect on voter registration rates" and that "These declines are likely to be especially significant amongst young and mobile populations".[120] IER will preclude "block registration" of students in halls of residence, which the NUS stated "could have a very negative impact on electoral participation amongst the student population."[121] The Electoral Commission's report on the confirmation process in England and Wales identified one area where the transition to IER has had a disproportionate impact, in relation to registration rates for attainers—people aged 16 and 17 who will turn 18 during the period the register is in force. The Commission's report stated that the match rate for attainers has "declined significantly since the test of confirmation", falling from a match rate of 86% in 2013 to 52% during the live run in 2014.

51. The move to Individual Electoral Registration has created both opportunities and challenges. Making it possible to register online is an extremely welcome change, and one that has been taken up by over 1.8 million people already. Moving registration online will make registration more accessible to many people and will also make it much easier for groups working to increase registration rates to run more effective campaigns.

52. Implementation of IER also presents risks. 5.5 million registered voters have not yet been transferred to the new electoral register following data matching. A disproportionate number of these people are from particular groups—private tenants, students and attainers. We recommend that every effort is made by Electoral Registration Officers to reach all registered voters who have not been automatically transferred to the new register, to give them the opportunity to register under the new system. The Electoral Commission must make it a priority to ensure that this happens and we are asking the Commission to give a progress report to us in the New Year. We understand that the Cabinet Office is considering another canvass in the spring to improve the electoral register before the election. The committee fully endorses this.


53. Under provisions of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, if voters have not been added to the new electoral register—either through the confirmation process, or by applying under the new registration system—they will be removed from the register in December 2016.[122] However, the administration in office after the 2015 election will be able to bring forward the date at which transitional arrangements end to December 2015.[123] This would affect who was registered to vote ahead of elections in May 2016 for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, the Mayor of London, and various local elections. The Electoral Commission will provide advice to the Government in June 2015 on whether it thinks such a decision would be appropriate. Jenny Watson told us that before giving this advice the Commission would look not only at the impact nationally, "but also the variation across the country".[124]

54. The Commission will not have completed its research on the completeness and accuracy of the new electoral registers before giving this advice, and will therefore not have detailed information about how particular groups would be affected by bringing forward the date on which transitional arrangements end.[125] Despite that, Phil Thompson, Research and Evaluation Manager at the Electoral Commission, told us:

    What we will be able to do is what we did for the assessment of the confirmation process, which is look at the variation across the country in rates of response to the write-out and things like that in relation to known demographic things about different local authorities. We may well be able to see that local authorities that have a large number of private renters are the ones with lower response rates, for example. It won't be quite as definitive as one of our full registration studies but it should tell us if there is a problem.[126]

Jenny Watson stated that: "we are focused on those important elections in May 2016 and we would need to see some compelling evidence that it was appropriate for the transition date to be brought forward".[127] When we asked Sam Gyimah MP about the IER programme, he told us:

    we are confident that there should be no overall reduction in the completeness of the register. That is the most important issue, that we don't have an overall reduction.[128]

55. Under current arrangements, the next review of Parliamentary constituency boundaries will be undertaken on the basis of the December 2015 electoral registers, meaning that the decision of whether to bring forward the end date for transitional arrangements could have a substantial impact on the level of changes proposed in the next review of constituency boundaries. This is an issue we intend to consider as part of our current inquiry into arrangements for redrawing of parliamentary constituency boundaries.

56. It is essential that, before it advises the Government on whether it is appropriate to bring forward the end date for the transitional arrangements for IER, the Electoral Commission consider not just the "headline" figures of how many people would drop off the register if the end of the transition period were brought forward, but pay particular attention to the differential impact across the country, and different demographic groups. We will be closely monitoring the Electoral Commission's reports on the progress of the transition to IER, and we recommend that the select committee with oversight of the process in the 2015 Parliament continue this monitoring. We recommend that, with 5.5 million voters not yet confirmed on to the new electoral register, unless the electoral registers are substantially more complete than at present by May 2015, the Government not bring forward the end date for the transitional arrangements for IER.

57. As well as the direct impact on the quality of the electoral registers, the Government and Parliament will need to consider—as we are currently doing in our inquiry into the rules for redrawing parliamentary constituency boundaries—how any bringing forward of the end of transitional arrangements will affect the next review of parliamentary constituency boundaries.

Additional funding to maximise registration

58. In light of the move to IER, in July 2013 the Government announced that it was making £4.2 million available to help maximise voter registration.[129] £3.6 million will be distributed to local authorities, and just over £200,000 will be spent on Innovation Fund grants to organisations that try to reach groups that are "most distant from the political process".[130] We took evidence about two projects that had been funded by such grants—the Hansard Society's project with Homeless Link,[131] and the "Hear my voice" campaign being run my Mencap—and were told that these would focus on registering particularly hard-to-reach groups.[132] We also heard some criticism of how the funding had been made available. Michael Sani, Executive Director of Bite the Ballot, told us "the whole process has not been as well thought out as it could have been" and that "it felt as though the Cabinet Office had not thought through the tender with the organisations that were best placed to deliver."[133] Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, criticised the level of funding that had been made available, stating:

    You will be aware that the Cabinet Office announced a voter registration campaign before Christmas. I think the budget was some £4 million over three months to solve a problem that has been going on for decades.[134]

The Electoral Commission's report on the confirmation stated that the Commission was in discussion with the Cabinet Office about "potential for additional funding being provided to EROs to support them with their work to maximise registration between the publication of the revised registers and the May 2015 polls."

59. Even—or especially—in a time of austerity it is vital that funding for elections is protected. While we welcome the £4.2 million the Government has made available to maximise registration during the transition to IER, it is likely that further funding will be necessary to ensure that levels of voter registration are not adversely affected by the implementation of IER. We recommend that in order to safeguard levels of voter participation, the Government commit in its response to us to look favourably on requests for additional funding to be made available to EROs to support their work in maintaining and enhancing the levels of electoral registration, and to other bodies and organisations that have a proven track record of increasing voter registration in the most economical and effective way possible. We also recommend that the Electoral Commission look into service level agreements with agencies, bodies and organisations such as Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote who have a proven track record in increasing electoral registration and can do it a fraction of the cost of the Electoral Commission or Government Departments.

Electoral Commission work on electoral fraud

60. The Electoral Commission has issued several reports focusing on electoral fraud in the UK. The foreword to their latest report looking at electoral fraud, published in January 2014, stated:

    Electoral fraud is a serious issue. One of the Electoral Commission's priorities is to ensure both that fraud is prevented from happening and that it is swiftly detected in the relatively rare circumstances that it is committed.

    Despite some high-profile cases in recent years when fraud has been detected and punished, there is no evidence to suggest that there have been widespread, systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with recent elections through electoral fraud.[135]

When we asked Jenny Watson about the scale of electoral fraud, she told us:

    You will know from the report that we said it is relatively rare. There are 16 local authorities out of around 380 that are at greater risk. In those local authorities it is not the whole local authority area. It is usually a few wards and it is much more likely to happen at local government elections.[136]

Despite the very low number of convictions for electoral fraud, Jenny Watson told us:

    There certainly is a perception [of electoral fraud], and we look at this after every election, and it is pretty stubborn perception. Around 30% of people believe that fraud is taking place.[137]


61. The Electoral Commission's most recent report on electoral fraud included a number of proposals that it has suggested in order "to tighten our electoral system against fraud." The proposals are:

·  Renewing efforts in targeted areas to ensure that voters can be confident that their vote is safe;

·  Preventing campaigners from handling postal votes, and

·  Moving to a system where voters are required to produce identification at polling stations.[138]

The report explains the rationale for these measures, stating:

    In making our recommendations for change, we have been conscious of the need to strike the right balance between making the system accessible, and making it secure. Getting this right will mean that voters and candidates can participate in elections, but corrupt campaigners cannot win votes through fraud.

62. When asked about the proposals, Jenny Watson told us that, although IER created a "secure registration system", there was a still "a vulnerability around in-person voting", which led the Commission to "recommend some kind of ID for polling stations by 2019".[139] Several of our witnesses raised concerns with the Electoral Commission's proposals around requiring photo ID at polling stations. Comments included:

·  "We would be very worried that introducing any document check at the polls would have serious adverse effects on turnout."[140]

·  "We have some concerns about that […] because we think it is putting up barriers to voting."[141]

·  "how do you ensure that everybody has a photo ID so they can turn up to vote and their vote will be counted?"[142]

Dr Maria Sobolewska also told us she believed the proposals would have a particular effect on BME voters.[143] Jenny Watson did acknowledge the possible adverse impact of requiring ID at polling stations, stating:

    One of the things that we will need to be mindful of is whether that would impose any unnecessary barriers for people. We do need to get the balance right between accessibility and security, and that is one of the things that we will be looking at very carefully as we do this work.[144]

63. However, others supported the proposals. John Turner, Chief Executive of the AEA, told us "there is too much of an opportunity for impersonation to take place in certain areas", and that introducing the requirement would not necessarily have an adverse impact on turnout.[145] Yet some thought it would have little impact. Alasdair Buckle, President of the University of Sheffield Students' Union, doubted it would reduce participation for students, as "Most students will carry some form of identification on them at most times."[146] When we asked the Minister about these proposals, he told us:

    Any measures to change the electoral system obviously have to strike a balance between safeguarding the integrity of the election but also ensuring voters are able to participate in elections. In terms of verifying identity at polling stations that you mentioned, allegations are not widespread and are more likely to be recorded in areas at high risk of electoral fraud, so it is not clear that we need a nationwide ID scheme as a proportionate solution.


    Requiring ID at polling station could disenfranchise legitimate voters who forget to take their ID with them or who are put off going because they do not have appropriate ID.[147]

64. Any fraud committed in elections undermines our democratic system and must be dealt with severely. That said, with only three convictions for electoral fraud in 2013—all of candidates and not voters—compared with 7.5 million people not being correctly registered to vote, and almost 16 million not voting in the last general election, it is clear where the biggest issue lies in respect of electoral administration in the UK. It is essential that any changes to electoral registration and voting procedures intended to combat fraud are proportionate to the scale of the problem. The benefits of measures that could create barriers for legitimate voters wishing to participate in elections need to be carefully weighed against the potential risk of voter suppression. Any new measures likely to have a disproportionate negative impact on groups that are already less likely to participate at elections must be assessed with the utmost care.

65. Several of our witnesses raised particular concerns about the Electoral Commission's proposal that voters be required to present photographic ID at polling stations. We believe that such a requirement cannot be justified at present, and we recommend against its adoption.

95   Individual Electoral Registration, Back

96   Electoral Registration, Electoral Commission Back

97   Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2010-12, Individual Electoral Registration and Administration, HC 1463, November 2011 Back

98   Readiness for Individual Electoral Registration, HC 796, 7 November 2013, and Individual Electoral Registration - April 2014, HC 1188, 10 April 2014 Back

99   Section 5, Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Back

100   Government introduces legislation for individual electoral registration, Cabinet Office, May 2012 Back

101   Regulation 23, The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 Back

102   Q696 [Jenny Watson and Phil Thompson] Back

103   Q693 [Jenny Watson] Back

104   Q693 [Phil Thompson] Back

105   Analysis of the confirmation live run in England and Wales, Electoral Commission, October 2014 Back

106   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 164] Back

107   Q190 [Toni Pearce], Q214 [Michael Sani] Back

108   Q372 [Simon Woolley] Back

109   Q267 [John Turner] Back

110   Q517 [Jenny Watson] Back

111   Q692 [Jenny Watson] Back

112   Q812 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

113   Q712 [Jenny Watson] Back

114   Analysis of the confirmation live run in England and Wales, Electoral Commission, October 2014 Back

115   This report was published on 21 October 2014, and is available on the Electoral Commission's website. Back

116   Q692 [Jenny Watson] Back

117   Q709 [Jenny Watson] Back

118   Written evidence from Charles Pattie, University of Sheffield, Ron Johnston, University of Bristol, David Cutts, Bath University, and Laura Palfreyman, Peaks College [VUK 19], Democratic Audit [VUK 20], Dr Maria Sobolewska, University of Manchester, and Professor Anthony Heath, Universities of Manchester and Oxford [VUK 30], Smartmatic Limited [VUK 41] Back

119   Continuous electoral registration in Northern Ireland, Electoral Commission, November 2012 Back

120   Written evidence from Dr Toby James [VUK 26] Back

121   Written evidence from the NUS [VUK 34] Back

122   Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, Part 2, Schedule 5, Para 5 Back

123   Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, Part 7, Schedule 5, Para 28 Back

124   Q698 [Jenny Watson] Back

125   Q709 [Jenny Watson] Back

126   Q709 [Phil Thompson] Back

127   Q733 [Jenny Watson] Back

128   Q808 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

129   New government campaign to get people on the electoral register,, 4 July 2013 Back

130   Funding for new ways to encourage voter registration,, 5 February 2014 Back

131   Q101 [Dr Ruth Fox] Back

132   Q316 [Rob Holland] Back

133   Q218 [Michael Sani] Back

134   Q355 [Simon Woolley] Back

135   Electoral Fraud in the UK, Electoral Commission, January 2014 Back

136   Q557 [Jenny Watson] Back

137   Q555 [Jenny Watson] Back

138   Electoral Fraud in the UK, Electoral Commission, January 2014 Back

139   Q557 [Jenny Watson] Back

140   Q73 [Professor Dunleavy] Back

141   Q130 [Will Brett] Back

142   Q44 [Glenn Gottfried] Back

143   Q339 [Dr Maria Sobolewska] Back

144   Q559 [Jenny Watson] Back

145   Qq 293, 297 [John Turner] Back

146   Q409 [Alasdair Buckle] Back

147   Qs 826-7 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

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Prepared 14 November 2014