Voter engagement in the UK - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

6  Improving levels of electoral registration

96. The evidence we have received on levels of electoral registration was unanimous that the ideal situation is a complete and accurate electoral register. Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, told us:

    We would all like to see a more complete register and a more accurate register. There is no question about that.[218]

Similarly, when we took evidence from officials from the Cabinet Office on IER, we were told:

    Everyone wants the electoral register to be 100% complete and 100% accurate—and then let the best candidate win.[219]

And John Turner, Chief Executive of the AEA, stated:

    clearly we would be in the game of wanting every ERO to get as many people on the register as is legally and humanly possible.[220]

Similar sentiments were expressed by Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, who told us:

    I think we should leave no stone unturned at getting every one of those people who is not there on there. I cannot give you a number for a target, because I think we should be looking for every one of them, but I have always taken the advice of this Committee and its members to keep the scrutiny and indeed the pressure on everyone involved in the electoral registration system to keep their sights high.[221]

97. We have identified several changes that could not only increase the number of people registered to vote, but also improve the administration of electoral registration more broadly. We have also looked at the roles of Electoral Registration Officers and the Electoral Commission.

98. However, we have been told that improvements to electoral registration are not a 'silver bullet' to improve levels of voter engagement. Glenn Gottfried told us that "although the electoral registration question is an important one and we should do all we can to ensure that people are registered, it is still not necessarily going to stop the declining turnout levels."[222] Dr Toby James shared this view, telling us that improving electoral administration "takes us so far but of course, ultimately, it is also about politicians and parties."[223] Jenny Watson also told us that in the context of the "disengagement of people with politics in this country, […] electoral registration officers are having to work harder than ever before simply to keep up".[224]

Electoral Registration Officers

99. Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) are responsible for maintaining the electoral registers for their area, and play a vital role in the electoral registration process. Their legal powers and obligations are set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983.[225] EROs have a key role in the implementation phase of IER, in terms of contacting local electors and completing data matching with local authority data. We have heard from several EROs as part of our inquiry, and a number of them told us how they saw their role. When we spoke to the ERO for Sheffield, he told us:

    My responsibility and roles are to get people registered, to inform them, to provide the administration that enables them to be registered and to proactively look for those people who are not there.[226]

Dr Dave Smith, ERO for Sunderland, told us:

    I think we have a huge role to play [in getting people registered to vote]. From my perspective, while there are general national initiatives that can be taken to effect and improve registration, there are some very local issues that make a big difference to the impact on the number of people registered. […] At a very local level it matters most to us to get as many people registered as possible. It matters for all sorts of reasons, but obviously principally from a principle of democracy and eligibility.[227]


100. Since 2006 the Electoral Commission has set and monitored performance standards for electoral officers. The Electoral Commission first published standards for EROs in July 2008,[228] and developed a new performance standards framework in light of the changes brought in by IER, which was published in September 2013.[229] Jenny Watson told us that these standards had made performance "more transparent", stating:

    You can see whether EROs are meeting the performance standards or are not, and when they fail them we say so. […] We are always developing our performance standards and we have tried to make them, certainly for this year, much more dependent on outcomes rather than on inputs and that is a change.[230]

Dr Toby James also told us he thought the introduction of performance standards had been an "enormously positive development", stating:

    It has meant that EROs have learned and shared good practice from each other. I think the scheme has been very effective through a kind of system of naming and shaming and has brought down the number of EROs who don't meet the various criteria over time.[231]

He noted that the current performance standards focused on processes, rather than outputs, such as registration rates. He told us that an alternative approach would be to include outputs in the performance standards, although such an approach was untested.[232]

101. The Electoral Commission has no power to compel EROs to act if they fail to fulfil their duties set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983, but they can recommend that the Secretary of State issue a direction to an ERO.[233] Jenny Watson told us that the Electoral Commission had not advised the Secretary of State to issue a direction to an ERO in relation to a failure to meet the Commission's performance standards, but that it was a possible further action would be taken should a local authority failed to conduct house to house enquiries during the current canvass.[234]

102. We have heard evidence questioning whether there were sufficient mechanisms in place to deal with EROs who do not fulfil their legal duties or meet the performance standards produced by the Electoral Commission. John Turner, Chief Executive of the AEA, told us that "until you have some means of ensuring that the will of Parliament can be enforced, [special measures] may be the only answer that would work."[235] Jenny Watson told us that if there was going to be a special measures regime, it would be helpful to identify "the purpose of it" and also "how it would be sustainable in the longer term".[236] Dr Toby James stated that there "is a case for targeting support for authorities that are continuously not meeting the standards", and that "MPs could do more […] to put pressure on local authorities that do not meet the standards".[237] Paul Lankester, ERO for Stratford-on-Avon, told us:

    we are trying very much to improve performance within the sector by the sector and I think there is a role for us to try to get colleagues to act in a way that ensures we get it through changes in behaviour in those registration officers […]. I would prefer to say give it to us as local government to sort out our colleagues who are not doing that. That is the right way forward and we will certainly try to help and promote good practice in ensuring it is there. But in terms of sanctions, sanctions need to be used very carefully and need to be used in a way that befits the situation.[238]

A subsequent written submission from Dr Dave Smith outlined a proposal which the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE)'s Elections and Democracy Board was putting forward to the Electoral Commission and Cabinet Officer for a set of regional pilots to form Electoral Boards, with the intention of promoting greater levels of consistency in the electoral community across each region, and of providing a support forum for EROs.[239]

103. In addition to looking at how underperforming EROs could be dealt with, we have also looked at the possibilities for recognising and sharing good practice. Dr Toby James told us that performance standards could be revised on the basis of "excellent work" by certain EROs, and that the Electoral Commission should also "draw 'best practices' from the 'best in the class' local authorities", which might allow other local authorities to replicate their success.[240] John Turner also highlighted the possibility of having exemplars of best practice for electoral services.[241] Jenny Watson said that "we think that is a very good idea" to recognise best practice and that the Commission "would be very happy to play any part that is appropriate in running that."[242] She also told us that the Commission was in the process of setting up a new mechanism to share good practice, and that "we could probably do more to share that with MPs and we are thinking about how we might put that in place." The written evidence from Sam Gyimah MP, the Minister for the Constitution, stated:

    Greg Clark and I have given some thought to the proposal for a scheme to recognise good practice by EROs. We believe this may have merit-particularly as a mechanism to promote the sharing of good practice. But I know the Electoral Commission would want to ensure that any scheme complements rather than competes with the important work of the Electoral Commission's existing performance standards regime. The Government may not be best placed to operate or adjudicate on such a scheme, but there are a range of other potential bodies which could play a useful role. I have asked officials to consider options.[243]

104. The Electoral Commission's performance standards have had a positive impact on the performance of Electoral Registration Officers, and these should be maintained. We recommend that in future targets for registration should be included in performance standards for EROs. The Electoral Commission will need to consider how such output targets should be set, and the steps which would be most effective in securing attainment of such targets should they not initially be achieved. Best practice, as identified by EROs and the Commission, should also be incorporated in the performance standards. We believe that the outcomes on the number and percentage of those registered to vote should also be a key performance indicator for the Electoral Commission.

105. We recommend that proposals for annually recognising notable successes and best practice in electoral registration be presented in the Government's response to this Report. We also believe that MPs should be more closely engaged with the monitoring of electoral registration in their constituencies and that the Electoral Commission should provide them with specific data on the outcomes of the number and percentage rates of registration in each ward within their constituency. We recommend that the Government commit to finding parliamentary time for an annual debate in Parliament to allow registration issues to be discussed. This could be held on National Voter Registration Day or on a "Democracy Day".

House to house canvassing

106. One of the specific duties of EROs that we have considered is the requirement to conduct house-to-house enquiries, as stipulated by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and set out in the Electoral Commission's performance standards.[244] The Electoral Administration Act 2006 states that EROs must "must take all steps that are necessary for the purpose of complying with his duty to maintain the registers", including "making on one or more occasions house to house inquiries". Both John Turner, Chief Executive of the AEA, and Dr Dave Smith, ERO for Sunderland and lead on the Elections and Democracy Board at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, told us about the importance of house-to-house canvassing in relation to electoral registration.[245] However, in 2013 there were 22 EROs (6% of all EROs) that did not meet the house-to-house enquiry standard.[246] When we questioned Jenny Watson about the failure of these EROs to meet the performance standard relating to house-to-house enquiries, she told us:

    There are 22 EROs who have not met the house-to-house standard, so that is 6% of the total. We are confident that their plans for the implementation of IER show that they have plans to meet that. If we find that they aren't—that could happen at any point—then we will be talking to the Minister. We are already talking to the Cabinet Office. We have a process in place to ask for a direction quickly if we need it. I think had we not seen the transition to IER being funded in the way that it is, you might well have seen directions being asked for at this point. Since it has been funded in the way that it is and we are confident that EROs have the resources to do what needs to be done, we haven't therefore yet sought to ask for a direction, but I would not rule that out at all.[247]

107. As part of our inquiries, we took evidence from two of the 22 local authorities that had failed to conduct house-to-house enquiries during the 2013 canvass. Mark Williams, Chief Executive and Electoral Registration Officer for East Devon District Council, told us that "over the years we have developed a system whereby through internal data matching, e-mailing and telephoning people who were not on the register, we managed to do the same—if not better—than just sending out people cold calling by door knocking",[248] and Kevin Finan, Chief Executive for Mid Devon District Council, told us that he had "made the judgment that that was not a good use of our money".[249] Mr Williams also told us that "if the objective is to get the voter to vote, you can do it through more amenable ways for the voter, which is dealing with them through the phone and through other means that they find more comfortable than necessarily appearing on the doorstep".[250]

108. We have also received written evidence from the Government on this point, which stated:

    Greg Clark wrote to all EROs that failed to meet performance standard 3 on the day the report was published. He made clear that Parliament expects EROs to meet these obligations. The law places an important duty on EROs to maintain a complete and accurate electoral register; this responsibility is further clarified under IER. The Cabinet Office has provided additional funding in the current financial year for this work.

    EROs were advised that the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission will be working closely with them to ensure that they are implementing their public engagement and implementation plans to transition successfully to IER. This will include ensuring that they carry out full house-to-house enquiries as part of their statutory obligations. Greg made it clear that if an authority is identified as not implementing its plans for carrying out house-to-house enquiries Ministers are fully prepared to issue a Secretary of State direction under section 52 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, to ensure the ERO complies with his statutory obligations. This was made clear to all EROs.[251]

When we asked Sam Gyimah MP about this, he informed us:

    We expect [EROs] to meet their full obligations and Ministers are fully prepared to issue a formal direction to EROs if necessary to ensure that they comply with their statutory obligation.[252]

109. Jenny Watson told us in September 2014 that for the 2014/15 canvass, "house-to-house inquiries, whether that is for the purposes of following up with individual electors to remind them to register or to get information about residents in the household who need to be invited to register, are at a very early stage." [253] She told us that the Electoral Commission would be "monitoring [house-to-house enquiries] on an ongoing basis", and would inform the Committee if there was a need to take any action outside of their reporting cycle.[254]

110. Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended, there is a statutory requirement that Electoral Registration Officers conduct house-to-house enquiries as part of the canvass. The Government should communicate this much more strongly to the public and put the legal requirements of EROs on the public record. We welcome the news that every ERO has plans to conduct house-to-house enquiries as part of the 2014/15 canvass, but this legal duty has in some cases not been taken seriously enough until now. Twenty-two EROs failed to fulfil this statutory requirement in the previous canvass, some for a number of successive years. We particularly welcome the explicit statements from Ministers that they are prepared to issue a formal direction to any EROs not complying with their statutory obligations, and we would support the issue of any such direction which had the objective of increasing levels of voter registration. We recommend that if any ERO repeatedly fails to fulfil their statutory duties in a way which has an adverse effect on the quality of voter registration in their area, the Government should take enforcement action against them. This could include consideration that this function should be taken from the local authority and handed to a neighbouring local authority which has had greater success. We also recommend that the Government set out the circumstances in which it is prepared to seek a prosecution of any electoral official considered to be in breach of an official duty under the provisions of the 1983 Act and bring forward proposals to amend the law if it is not sufficiently clear. We recognise that the Electoral Commission, Government Departments and EROs have allocated more effort, time and money to ensuring a more complete electoral register for the purpose of IER, to prevent the 5.5 million voters who have not yet been confirmed on to the new electoral registers from dropping off the register. We believe that such rigour should have been shown in the past, and should be shown in future, in order to get the 7.5 million who are not correctly registered to vote at present.

111. We will monitor how the canvass proceeds in the coming months and hope that increased scrutiny of performance standards will lead to improvements in the completeness and accuracy of the next electoral register. We will report again in the New Year on the 2014/15 canvass.


112. Only public authorities listed in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are subject to requests for information under that Act. Although both the Electoral Commission and local authorities are included, Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers are separate legal entities and are not covered—though information they have passed to the Electoral Commission or a local authority would be disclosable by those bodies. In March 2010, the then Minister of Justice stated that "In order to come within the scope of the FOI Act, EROs would need to be designated by a section 5 Order under that Act or through an amendment to the primary legislation."[255]

113. When we asked John Turner, Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, whether EROs should be subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, he said:

    Our policy is quite plain on this. We advise our members to do exactly the latter thing that you have suggested, writing back and pointing out that, "By law we are not obliged to, but in the spirit of transparency and so on, here is the information". It is basically public and it is publicly funded, so I do not see any reason why not. The simple answer to your question is, yes, I do believe that EROs and returning officers should be on the FOI list.[256]

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, took a similar view, stating:

    We would say exactly the same thing—that they should respond as if they were subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I confess I don't really understand why they are not and whether it is a kind of glitch in the legislation, but we just advise them to act as if they were.[257]

She went on to say that she thought it would "make things clearer" if EROs were brought formally under the FOI Act.[258] John Tomlinson, ERO for Sheffield, told us:

    I think that when the Freedom of Information Act was passed it was never in Parliament's intention that EROs and returning officers would be exempt from Freedom of Information, so perhaps that ought to be addressed so they are included in it. From our own personal perspective, the line that we take when we get Freedom of Information is to first of all point out that we are not subject to that but if we can give the information, we will give it. If we can't give the information, if there is a legal barrier or we just don't have it, then we explain why.[259]

114. When we questioned Sam Gyimah MP, he told us he agreed that the exclusion of EROs from the FOI Act "does seem like an anomaly" and that it was something he was happy to look at. He said:

    In terms of how we move forward, officials have discussed bringing EROs under FOI with their counterparts in the Ministry of Justice who have responsibility for Freedom of Information. It appears likely that EROs could be included through an order […] and it is something that I am going to look into.[260]

115. It appears to be an oversight that Electoral Registration Officers, and Returning Officers, are not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. EROs and ROs clearly exercise functions of a public nature and it is in the public interest for them to be required to respond to requests for information in the same way as other public authorities. The Committee notes that despite evidence from the Electoral Commission that they would advise EROs to respond to FOI requests as though they were subject to the Act, East Devon District Council has been refusing to respond to requests for information under the FOI Act from members of the public in respect of electoral registration activity.[261] We recommend that the Government issue a section 5 Order designating EROs and ROs public authorities for the purpose of the Act. In the meantime, the Electoral Commission should make it clear that it is best practice for EROs to respond to requests for information as though they were subject to the Act.

The Electoral Commission

116. The Electoral Commission was established in 2001 by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The main duties established by the Act include preparing and publishing a report after each major election on the administration of the election, keeping under review, and reporting to the Secretary of State, on matters including the registration of political parties and the regulation of their income and expenditure, and political advertising in the broadcast and other electronic media, and educating the public about the UK's electoral and democratic systems.[262] The Commission lists its main roles and responsibilities on its website as:

·  supporting well-run elections and referendums in the UK, offering support and guidance to those involved, and ensuring voters know everything they need to know;

·  making sure people understand the rules around political party finance, taking action when the rules are broken and publishing information on political finance.

·  maintaining and publishing the registers of political parties in Great Britain and Northern Ireland;

·  conducting a wide range of research around elections and referendums, electoral registration and party and election finance;

·  running campaigns before elections and referendums to make sure people are aware of when and how to register to vote and anything else they need to know, and

·  carrying out policy work across a range of areas to ensure that the rules around all aspects of elections are as clear and simple as possible and that the interests of voters are always put first.[263]

117. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 included duties relating to "Education about electoral and democratic systems", which were intended to provide for the Commission to have a role in encouraging voters' participation in the democratic process.[264] However, in 2006 the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that "The Electoral Commission should no longer have the wider statutory duty to encourage participation in the democratic process."[265] The rationale for this was that promoting democratic participation was neither within nor supportive of the Commission's core tasks, and was more properly a responsibility of political parties. The recommendation was supported by both the Government and Opposition, and as a result the Government stated that the Commission's duties relating to education about electoral and democratic systems could "be interpreted more narrowly to reflect the restricted remit of the Commission."[266]

118. We received a significant amount of evidence on the role the Electoral Commission plays in relation to voter engagement. Several witnesses argued that the Commission could be spending more time looking at how to have "a full, healthy democracy" and "the promotion and encouragement of voting itself".[267] On the Electoral Commission's role, Jenny Watson told us:

    Our efforts focus on providing information about registration and how to vote rather than seeking to drive voter turnout or broader civic engagement […].I would argue, though, that the work we carry out now plays an important role in engagement by ensuring that voters know how they can play their part and in raising registration levels in advance of elections. More broadly, when it comes to the way elections are run, we are already discussing with our Electoral Advisory Board—that is a group of senior returning officers who advise the Commission—a vision for 21st century electoral administration and that work will continue after the next general election.[268]

She also told us:

    We think it is important that people can participate if they want to do so and that they are not prohibited from participating by a lack of information or by not being on the electoral register.[269]


119. The Electoral Commission also told us about the role it plans to play in supporting other organisations that take an interest in encouraging democratic participation. The written evidence from the Electoral Commission stated: "The Commission is […] committed to supporting all those who have a role to play in changing people's engagement with politics, and to doing what we can ourselves to increase participate in elections".[270] Jenny Watson told us:

    we will continue to take seriously the implications of declining and low turnout at elections or referendums and to increase the work we do to support organisations and individuals best placed to tackle public disengagement. We do that through a range of routes, some of which is working in partnership with others, some of which might be brokering conversations between civic society groups and electoral registration officers, for example.[271]

Expanding on the issue in a subsequent hearing, she said:

    One of the things we are doing from now until the general election around IER and also around the general election campaign is working more closely with a range of different partners. For example, it may be that being told by Citizens Advice that it is important you are registered to vote will have more of an impact. We have a range of partners that we are working with. They have the audiences, we have the voter knowledge, and we are putting that together.[272]


120. The Electoral Commission runs regular public awareness campaigns in the run up to elections encouraging people to register to vote. Details of the campaigns run in recent years have been published in the Official Report in response to parliamentary questions,[273] and the Electoral Commission also submitted written evidence to us in relation to the cost-effectiveness of their public awareness work.[274] Ahead of the 2015 general election, the Electoral Commission has a target of 1 million registrations. This is a substantial increase on targets for their previous registration campaigns.

121. Although one of the activities the Electoral Commission plans to undertake in the coming years is to maximise registration—through public awareness campaigns and the provision of guidance, templates and tools to EROs—one of the "key success measures" of their current corporate plan is that "Accuracy of the electoral registers improves, and completeness of the registers does not deteriorate".[275] Asked whether this was an ambitious target, Jenny Watson told us:

    For this stage of the transition in IER, given that we have consistently said the register should be more accurate and should not be less complete after IER, that is the key success measure for the purposes of this transition. I would expect to see this develop as we go through the life of this corporate plan, which effectively takes us through to 2018-19. For this stage I think it is right, but it is not, on its own, the only thing we are doing and you cannot see that in isolation without seeing that we are also focusing on service voters, overseas electors, maximising registration and individual electoral registration.[276]

When this point was raised with Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, he told us: "I think that one of the aims of the Commission should be to get people who are not registered to be on the register."[277] Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, Deputy Prime Minister, also told us: "my opinion and all of our opinions is to be ambitious for the fullest scale of registration possible, and clearly every voter who is unregistered, we should be seeking to make efforts to register them."[278]

122. The Electoral Commission's goal should be that every person eligible to be registered to vote is on the electoral register. Given there are an estimated 7.5 million people not correctly registered to vote, and also millions of British citizens living overseas that are not registered to vote, we welcome the news that the Electoral Commission aims to have one million more voters registered ahead of the 2015 general election. This is a substantial increase on previous targets for registration campaigns.

123. It is disappointing to note that one of the Electoral Commission's key measures of success for the next five years is that "completeness of the registers does not deteriorate". Since the level of completeness for the electoral registers is not currently satisfactory, we do not consider it to be a success simply for them to deteriorate no further. We recommend that the Electoral Commission review its success measures in respect of voter registration and set itself much more challenging measures for the completeness of the electoral register.


124. Jenny Watson told us she thought there was a role for the Electoral Commission in "stimulating wider debate" around issues such as making voting more accessible. Following our oral evidence sessions with the Electoral Commission, we received supplementary written evidence outlining some of the areas the Commission and Electoral Advisory Board (EAB) would be looking at in the future. These included two main strands of possible reform:

·  Useful changes to electoral administration processes that could improve efficiency and which could be achieved over the short to medium term. Such changes might include "back-office" and "candidate-facing" processes-for example, the nomination process, the use of electoral management software; training for electoral administration staff.

·  More strategic, medium to long term, "voter-facing" changes that could form part of a wider debate about voter participation. This could include consideration of different voting methods, including e-voting and advance voting; improving the electoral registration process; and the counting of votes.[279]

The Commission stated that "The EAB agreed that prioritisation of issues was necessary and the Commission is now in the process of developing a more specific work plan to be finalised by the end of the year, following further discussion." The Commission noted that that the EAB had expressed the view that "any potential changes should be considered carefully before being implemented and should ideally be based on sound evidence and proper evaluation."[280]

Registration campaigns

125. A number of independent organisations run their own campaigns encouraging people to register to vote and participate at elections, often aimed at particular sections of society. Bite the Ballot focuses on young people, for example, and Operation Black Vote works with Black and Minority Ethnic groups. Alex Robertson, Director of Communications for the Electoral Commission, praised the registration campaigns run by other organisations, stating:

    I think the work that Bite the Ballot are doing—and not just them but many other organisations working with young people and other groups—is very effective and very innovative. What they are able to do, by focusing on a very specific audience, is build up a relationship with them and understand what is effective for them.[281]

126. One specific organisation we heard a great deal of praise for was Bite the Ballot. Several of our witnesses spoke enthusiastically about the National Voter Registration Day campaign they ran on 5 February 2014,[282] which led to approximately 25,000 young people being added to the electoral register on a budget of £9,000.[283] Representatives of Bite the Ballot told us that the key to their success had been "inspiration" and "the call to action to the individuals".[284] They also said that with online registration National Voter Registration Day in 2015 should be even more successful, as every tweet or promotional video from the campaign could end with a link to the new online registration page.[285]

127. Several witnesses highlighted the influence social media could have in registration campaigns and in encouraging people to actually vote.[286] Fran O'Leary told us that politicians should look to both Facebook and Twitter to engage with younger voters in particular,[287] a view shared by Patrick Brione, from Survation, who told us:

    the role of Facebook in campaigning should not be underestimated or underused as a tool. Facebook and the family were important to them whereas traditional newspapers less so.[288]

Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council told us that they have already "developed a greater usage of social media to make sure that people are aware of the importance to register and also get involved in the process."[289]

128. Registration campaigns run by independent organisations such as Bite the Ballot, Operation Black Vote and Mencap are extremely important in supplementing the efforts of electoral officials, and can also be highly cost effective. We welcome the Electoral Commission's stated intention to work closely with such organisations, and call on the Commission and the Government to support all organisations genuinely concerned with increasing the number of people who are registered to vote.

129. We recommend that, while every day should be a voter registration day, in its response to this Report the Government should set out how it plans to support Bite the Ballot's National Voter Registration Day 2015, on 5 February 2015. The Electoral Commission, electoral officials, and all public sector organisations should put specific plans in place to take advantage of National Voter Registration Day to make a significant difference to the number of people who are registered to vote ahead of the 2015 general election, and future elections.

Changes to electoral registration

130. We have taken evidence on a number of specific proposals that could make registering to vote more accessible, or otherwise increase registration rates. The specific proposals we have considered most closely are:

·  Prompting people to register to vote when they access other public services

·  Registering students to vote at schools and colleges

·  Letting people register to vote closer to the date of an election

We examine each of these proposals below.


131. A number of witnesses argued that there was scope to encourage people to register to vote when they access a wide range of public services—such as registering to pay council tax, or applying for a passport.[290] Jessica Garland, Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society, told us that their research had found that "at least 38% of people felt they would be more likely to register with that sort of encouragement",[291] and Fran O'Leary told us that "Lodestone recommends that at every point when voters engage with the council they should be invited to register to vote."[292] Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, agreed that prompting people to register to vote could be effective, telling us there was scope "to think about how the technology that supports individual electoral registration could be used to deliver benefits for voters in the longer term through making it easier for them to register to vote and to be prompted more often to register to vote."[293] She had previously told us:

    when individual electoral registration is running in steady state, it might be possible to use […] transactions with Government in different ways to encourage people to register, and a wider range of records to identify people who are not on the register and invite them to register.[294]

She did qualify these statements by saying that "it would be very difficult to see transactions with Government being able to make it easier for voters unless there was a better integrated system." Most recently, she told us "One of the things that we know needs to change in the system is to have a better ability to interact with people who are moving around more frequently than they used to do."[295] A similar view was expressed by Paul Lankester, ERO for Stratford-on-Avon, who told us there needed to be "a continuing emphasis on trying to ensure people, when they move into an area, part of their pack in moving in is, 'Here is about electoral registration'."[296]

132. Toni Pearce told us that the NUS were doing lots of work with EROs and local institutions to "try to integrate the process of enrolment at college or university with the process of registering to vote". Other occasions when people could be prompted to register to vote include:

·  When people receive a National Insurance card;

·  When people register to pay council tax, and

·  When people register with a doctor or dentist.

Private sector companies could also be encouraged to prompt their customers to register to vote, something that would be particularly effective if people could be prompted to register to vote when they register with a utility company, apply for home insurance or become tenants of a property, as this could be effective in reaching people when they are moving home, a point at which people often cease to be correctly registered to vote.

133. We recommend that in its response to our Report the Government make specific proposals about how people could be prompted to register to vote when they access other public services, particularly those services associated with a change in address, such as registering to pay council tax. The Electoral Commission and EROs should also seek to work with private companies who interact with the public so they can, as part of their corporate responsibilities, prompt those people who are currently not registered to vote to register.


134. In light of the particularly low registration and participation rates amongst students and young people, several witnesses highlighted the possibility of registering people while they were still in school or college.[297] Michael Sani, Managing Director of Bite the Ballot, told us:

    We think the Northern Ireland initiative of allowing the local authorities to liaise with schools and public bodies to share information and, where necessary, pre-populate forms is fantastic, and it localises this effort of engagement.[298]

The written evidence from Bite the Ballot elaborated on this proposal.[299] Similarly, Eleanor Thompson, Student Voice Manager at the University of Sheffield Students' Union, told us about plans to invite students to indicate if they wished to register to vote when they enrolled at University.[300] When we mentioned this work to Sam Gyimah MP, he told us: "It is a good idea. We are working with the NUS along the same lines as well, but it is a good idea."[301] Professor Jonathan Tonge and Dr Andrew Mycock stated that compulsory registration of 16 and 17 year olds in school or college would help address the particular issue of electoral participation for young people, and would also be a cost-effective way of registering young people.[302] Another suggestion was that "EROs should investigate using students' unions, universities and colleges as venues for polling stations as they are already a central hub for the community."[303]

135. Given the low registration rates amongst young people, there is a strong case for making greater efforts to register 16 to 18 year olds at school and in college—particularly as registration now takes place on an individual basis and can be done, easily, on-line, from school. We particularly ask the Secretary of State for Education to promote this to schools and colleges. EROs also should now be working with schools and colleges to register students, and we recommend that the Electoral Commission explicitly include this action in its performance standards for EROs. This could be integrated with broader citizenship education, and include a discussion about how to register to vote when moving to university or away from home. Successful initiatives developed by EROs and Universities—such as those we heard about in Sheffield—should also be replicated across the country.


136. Currently voters must register at least 11 working days before the date of an election. We examined the possibility of letting people register to vote on the day of an election, an idea which received significant support from those addressing it in their written evidence.[304] Professor Dunleavy and Richard Berry, of Democratic Audit, told us they thought election-day registration should be introduced,[305] and Jessica Garland, of the Electoral Reform Society, told us: "that is the one reform that has been shown to improve equality of voting most."[306] Dr Toby James told us that in some US states up to 17% of voters registered on the day, although he thought in the UK the figure was likely to be "somewhere in the region of three to six percentage points", saying that this "is still quite a substantial increase".[307] He also noted that with the introduction of IER, election-day registration might be able to be implemented more easily. The Wales Governance Centre argued that allowing registration on the day of the election would in particular facilitate turnout for young people, stating: "Young people are more likely to wait until the last minute to vote, and may not even decide to do so until the day in question, and as a result, often find themselves unable to participate."[308]

137. On the other hand, John Turner, Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said that, although there was "potentially scope" for letting people register closer to an election than at present, "If you get to the point of registering on the day, you open up a completely different can of worms", which he set out in written evidence.[309] A written submission from Professor RA Watt also highlighted difficulties around election-day registration, referring to both the risk of fraud, as well as the logistical challenges of processing registrations on election day and then checking them.[310] Dr Toby James, who considered that there was "a very strong case for making election-day registration a long term policy goal", also noted implementation challenges that would be involved: that the change would "require funding and carefully managed implementation".[311] Others, including the Local Government Association, also highlighted the challenges that could be presented by election day registration.[312]

138. There is persuasive evidence that enabling people to register closer to the date of an election, or on an election day itself, would lead to increased registration rates and turnout at elections. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government set out proposals for reducing the number of days between the cut-off date for registration and the election day, with a view to implementing them as soon as possible. We also recommend that the Government set out the steps to achieving by 2020 the objective of allowing eligible electors to register and then vote at the Town Hall or equivalent up to and on the day of an election. We acknowledge the need to consider how to accurately verify registrations made on the day, and to provide any additional resources required by local authorities to implement such a system.

The "open register"

139. There are two electoral registers, one an unedited version—used for electoral purposes by political parties and candidates, and also for other limited purposes specified in law—and an edited, "open" register, that is available to anyone who wants to buy a copy. We have previously recommended that the "open register" be abolished, on the basis that personal details gathered for electoral purposes should not be sold to commercial organisations.[313] The evidence we have received more recently has provided further support for the abolition of the open register. The Electoral Commission, and a number of the Electoral Registration Officers we heard from, raised with us the dissatisfaction they considered the public felt with the open register. In order for their details not to be included on the open register, individuals must opt out when they register to vote, or contact their ERO requesting to be removed. Jenny Watson told us that the wording explaining the open register to voters had been made much clearer following the implementation of IER,[314] and also told us that "during the passage of the legislation [for IER] we said that we thought the open register should be abolished or, if not abolished, that we should move to a system where people were asked to opt in rather than opt out."[315] Paul Lankester, ERO for Stratford-on-Avon, told us that the open register "has probably caused the biggest exercise in complaints I have received in my time of 13 years as an electoral registration officer, 3,000 complaints in the last month from the current canvass, and that is fairly universal from my talking to other electoral registration officers. People do not want to be on that sold register."[316] Dr Dave Smith, ERO for Sunderland, also highlighted public dissatisfaction with the open register, stating: "I also think that for the first time people are clear what an open register is and the fact that people are on it rather than electing to go on it or come off it. That is what people are objecting to, that they have not had control of the decision in the first place, and that has been at the front of this."[317]

140. When the Government responded to our earlier recommendation to abolish the open register, it stated that the issue was "currently under consideration in the context of the wider access regime for the electoral registers", but has since taken no action.[318] When we heard from the Minister for the Constitution as part of this inquiry, he told us that he too had received complaints about the open register.[319]

141. We have previously recommended that the edited electoral register—now called the "open register"—should be abolished. We reaffirm this call in the light of the clear and significant public dissatisfaction—which has reached the ears of the Minister for the Constitution—with the sale to private companies of data that electors provide to electoral registration officers to enable them to register to vote. We recommend that the Government take immediate action to abolish the open electoral register before new registers are published. We believe that the full electoral register should continue to be available to political parties and candidates, as it is at present.

218   Q536 [Jenny Watson] Back

219   Q49 [Mark Sweeny], Oral evidence on Individual Electoral Registration, 10 April 2014 Back

220   Qq 259, 280 [John Turner] Back

221   Q50 [Rt Hon Greg Clark MP], The work of the Deputy Prime Minister 2014, 9 September 2014 Back

222   Q19 [Glenn Gottfried] Back

223   Q244 [Dr Toby James] Back

224   Q537 [Jenny Watson] Back

225   Registration of parliamentary and local government electors, Representation of the People Act 1983 Back

226   Q415 [John Tomlinson] Back

227   Q775 [Dr Dave Smith] Back

228   Performance standards for Electoral Registration Officers in Great Britain, Electoral Commission, July 2008 Back

229   Performance standards for Electoral Registration Officers, Electoral Commission, September 2013 Back

230   Q547 [Jenny Watson] Back

231   Q253 [Dr Toby James] Back

232   Written evidence from Dr Toby James [VUK 141] Back

233   Section 52, Representation of the People Act 1983 Back

234   Qq 751-2 [Jenny Watson] Back

235   Q281 [John Turner] Back

236   Q551 [Jenny Watson] Back

237   Written evidence from Dr Toby James [VUK 141] Back

238   Q780 [Paul Lankester] Back

239   Written evidence from Dr Dave Smith [VUK 157] Back

240   Written evidence from Dr Toby James [VUK 141], Q255 [Dr Toby James] Back

241   Q263 [John Turner] Back

242   Q548 [Jenny Watson] Back

243   Written evidence from the Government [VUK 148] Back

244   Section 9, Electoral Administration Act 2006, and Performance standards for Electoral Registration Officers in Great Britain, Electoral Commission, July 2008 Back

245   Q261 [John Turner], Q777 [Dr Dave Smith] Back

246   Analysis of electoral registration data for Great Britain, Electoral Commission, June 2014, written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 104] Back

247   Q549 [Jenny Watson] Back

248   Q844 [Mark Williams] Back

249   Q847 [Kevin Finan] Back

250   Q845 [Mark Williams] Back

251   Written evidence from the Government [VUK 148] Back

252   Q840 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

253   Q692 [Jenny Watson] Back

254   Qq 739-50 [Jenny Watson] Back

255   Hansard, col 654W, 29 March 2010 Back

256   Q276 [John Turner] Back

257   Q553 [Jenny Watson] Back

258   Q554 [Jenny Watson] Back

259   Q429 [John Tomlinson] Back

260   Q823 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

261   Letter from an Information and Complaints Officer, East Devon District Council, to Mr Tony Green, 4 November 2014 Back

262   Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 Back

263   Roles and responsibilities, Electoral Commission Back

264   Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, Section 13 (and Explanatory notes) Back

265   Review of The Electoral Commission, Committee in Standards in Public Life, January 2007 Back

266   The Government Response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life's Eleventh Report: Review of the Electoral Commission, Cm 7272, November 2007 Back

267   Q43 [Glenn Gottfried], Q73 [Professor Dunleavy], Q76 [Jessica Garland] Back

268   Q517 [Jenny Watson] Back

269   Q545 [Jenny Watson] Back

270   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 40] Back

271   Q523 [Jenny Watson] Back

272   Q725 [Jenny Watson] Back

273   Electoral Register, Col 390W, 17 March 2014 Back

274   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 88] Back

275   Corporate plan 2014-15 to 2018-19, Electoral Commission Back

276   Q721 [Jenny Watson] Back

277   Q52 [Rt Hon Greg Clark MP], The work of the Deputy Prime Minister 2014, 9 September 2014 Back

278   Q54 [Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP], The work of the Deputy Prime Minister 2014, 9 September 2014 Back

279   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 156] Back

280   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 156] Back

281   Q568 [Alex Robertson] Back

282   Q47 [Glenn Gottfried], Q138 [Jessica Garland], Q191 [Toni Pearce], Q568 [Jenny Watson], Q619 [Dr Rebecca Rumbul] Back

283   National Voter Registration Day, Bite the Ballot Back

284   Q208 [Michael Sani] Back

285   Q209 [Oliver Sidorczuk] Back

286   Written evidence from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems [VUK 47], Lodestone [VUK 101], Professor Susan Banducci and Dr Daniel Stevens [VUK 120] Back

287   Q496 [Fran O'Leary] Back

288   Q495 [Patrick Brione] Back

289   Written evidence from Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council [VUK 49] Back

290   Written evidence from the Electoral Reform Society [VUK 17], Dr Toby James [VUK 26], Bite the Ballot [VUK 65], Lodestone [VUK 101], Bite the Ballot [VUK 153] Back

291   Q134 [Jessica Garland] Back

292   Q491 [Fran O'Leary] Back

293   Q602 [Jenny Watson] Back

294   Q586 [Jenny Watson] Back

295   Q724 [Jenny Watson] Back

296   Q775 [Paul Lankester] Back

297   Written evidence from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform [VUK 152], Bite the Ballot [VUK 153] Back

298   Q221 [Michael Sani] Back

299   Written evidence from Bite the Ballot [VUK 65] Back

300   Q407 [Eleanor Thompson] Back

301   Q833 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

302   Written evidence from Professor Jonathan Tonge and Dr Andrew Mycock [VUK 05] Back

303   Written evidence from the NUS [VUK 34] Back

304   Q264 [Paul Lankester], written evidence from Dr Elin Weston and LLB Advanced Constitutional Law students, King's College London [VUK 33], NUS [VUK 34], Birmingham 'Success' Group [VUK 37], Smartmatic Limited [VUK 41], Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council [VUK 49], Bite the Ballot [VUK 65], Lynne Armstrong [VUK 106] Back

305   Q74 [Professor Dunleavy and Richard Berry] Back

306   Q132 [Jessica Garland] Back

307   Q242 [Dr Toby James] Back

308   Written evidence from the Wales Governance Centre [VUK 15] Back

309   Qs 298-9 [John Turner], written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [VUK 32] Back

310   Written evidence from Professor RA Watt [VUK 24] Back

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

312   Written evidence from the Local Government Association [VUK 70], I Miller [VUK 119], Andy Tye [VUK 84] Back

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

314   Q696 [Jenny Watson] Back

315   Q696 [Jenny Watson] Back

316   Q775 [Paul Lankester] Back

317   Q788 [Dr Dave Smith] Back

318   Government Response to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation on Individual Electoral Registration and amendments to Electoral Administration law, HM Government, February 2012 Back

319   Q801 [Sam Gyimah MP] Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 14 November 2014