Voter engagement in the UK: follow up - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents


5  Improving electoral registration

47. Our interim report looked at several ways electoral registration in the UK could be improved, and recommended a number of changes to current arrangements, including:

·  Making registration automatic;

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

·  Registering students to vote at schools and colleges; and

·  Letting people register to vote closer to the date of an election.[95]

We set out below the responses we received on these proposals, and our revised conclusions and recommendations.

An obligation to register to vote

48. As we noted in our interim report, it is not compulsory in the UK for people to register to vote, although the Electoral Registration Act 2013 does provide for Electoral Registration Officers to "require [a] person to make an application for registration by a specified date", and to impose a civil penalty on anyone failing to do so.[96] The Association of Electoral Administrators has told us that, although provisions for compelling people to register to vote do exist, the process for actually enforcing this was "a long and costly one", and, since the penalty imposed would not be retained by the relevant local authority, it was likely that very few authorities would pursue this route.[97] The Association stated that a better incentive might be making registering to vote a requirement to gain access to other public services such as refuse collection and libraries, a suggestion supported by a number of others.[98]

49. The majority of survey respondents (over 65% of 16,000 responses) believed that registration should be compulsory,[99] although several respondents made the point that this should only be the case if the register were used exclusively for electoral purposes, an issue we address later in this report. Comments made by those opposing compulsory registration cited the difficulty of enforcement, and that it would not be appropriate to penalise individuals for "doing nothing". The Electoral Commission noted its support "for maintaining a responsibility to register to vote", but said that any further clarification on the electoral law around this point would be welcome.[100] That said, Bite the Ballot told us that they "never, ever hammer home the legal requirements to register", as they say these "are 'sure-fire', instant turn-offs to young people; especially those furthest away from politics." Bite the Ballot instead advocated setting out the benefits of being registered to vote—such as the relation to credit rating.[101] The Government told us that it believes that "compelling someone to register to vote is unlikely to make them more engaged and therefore more likely to vote."[102] The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform told us that the Liberal Democrats had "fought hard in Government" to retain legal obligations to provide information to EROs, and to ensure "a civil penalty is available as a lever of last resort".[103] Their response stated that they strongly opposed moves to make registration entirely voluntary.

50. We believe it is an inviolable part of the obligations of UK citizenship that every citizen should, as a bare minimum, register to vote. The majority of respondents to our consultation agreed with our view that registration should be compulsory, and action must therefore be taken. We recommend that the legal requirements to register to vote are clarified, and that this basic civil duty should be enforced. Given the views expressed to us by the Association of Electoral Administrators about the time and costs involved in directing individuals to register to vote, we recommend that this process be rethought with a view to increasing the use of this power, and thereby increasing rates of electoral registration.

Automatic registration

51. We have previously recommended that registration should be automatic—meaning voters would be registered automatically using information already held by the state, rather than requiring people to apply to register—and we restated this in our interim report.[104] The Electoral Commission has since highlighted the possibility for "direct registration"—where public sector data is used to identify potential electors and then to add them to the register without requiring them to complete an application form—noting that the Australian Electoral Commission was pursuing this at present, and stating that it would "welcome the opportunity to explore the feasibility and implications of such an option with the Government."[105] The idea of automatic registration was also supported by several other responses to our consultation.[106] The Government told us that it believes registering to vote "is a civic duty and that individuals should take responsibility for their own vote", stating that this was one of the fundamental underpinnings of the new system of IER and that this belief was "incompatible with a system of automatic registration."[107]

52. We reaffirm our view that voters should, ideally, be registered to vote automatically, using data already held by the Government. We are pleased that the Electoral Commission would welcome the opportunity to explore direct registration with the Government. The Government feels that automatic registration is incompatible with the idea that registering to vote is a civic duty and that people should take responsibility for their own vote. Automatic registration would supplement the efforts of citizens who register themselves, and Electoral Registration Officers who invite them to do so. Having such a system run alongside IER would certainly increase levels of registration, and thereby the number of people who could then take responsibility for their vote—having been registered and enabled to do so. We recommend that the Government take this offer up, and clearly set out its view on moving to a system of automatic registration early in the next Parliament, so that changes can be implemented as soon as practicable. Such a system could operate alongside Individual Electoral Registration.

The open register

53. Our interim report recommended that the open register—an edited version of the electoral register which is sold to private companies—be abolished, on the basis that personal details gathered for electoral purposes should not be sold to commercial organisations.[108] The Electoral Commission shared our view that the open register should be abolished as soon as practicable—a position it has made clear repeatedly in the past.[109] The Commission told us that it believes it is "wrong in principle to combine a request for information for the purposes of electoral registration with the issue of direct marketing", and noted that EROs and elected representatives have received complaints and concerns expressed by electors on this point.[110] The Commission has told us that it "would be happy to work with the UK Government and EROs to make the necessary changes to regulations to discontinue the open register."[111] The Association of Electoral Administrators has told us that it "welcomes and fully supports this recommendation",[112] as has Brent Council.[113] The only piece of evidence we received arguing that the open register should continue to be published was from the Government, which told us that it considered current arrangements for the open register in 2012, and decided to retain the open register and the option for people to opt out of appearing on it. The Government noted that prior to 2002 the full register had been completely open, and stated that if the current open register were abolished it is likely there would be strong pressure for wider access to the electoral register, which could discourage people from registering to vote.[114]

54. 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 evidence of clear and significant public dissatisfaction. We welcome the Electoral Commission's offer to work with the UK Government to make the necessary changes to discontinue the open register, and recommend that the Government take immediate action to abolish the open electoral register before new registers are published.

National Voter Registration Day

55. On 5 February 2014 Bite the Ballot, a community interest organisation, launched the first National Voter Registration Day (NVRD), with a view to registering 100,000 young people ahead of the May 2014 elections. The campaign led to around 25,000 young people registering to vote, a result achieved from a budget of £9,000. In our interim report we noted the importance of campaigns such as this to supplementing the efforts of electoral officials, and recommended that the Government, the Electoral Commission, EROs and other public bodies should put in place specific plans for NVRD 2015, with a view to taking maximum advantage of this event so as to increase levels of voter registration ahead of the 2015 general election.[115] The Electoral Commission has told us that it will "be supporting National Voter Registration Day through its social media channels and will be asking its partners to conduct similar activity to help raise the profile of the day and to encourage as many people as possible to register."[116] The Government told us that it welcomed "all initiatives including Bite the Ballot's National Voter Registration Day, British Youth Council's Make Your Mark and Vinspired's Swing the Vote, that promote democratic engagement and voter registration."[117] The Government also stated that it was "considering how best to support activities which fall on 5 February and beyond, to encourage all groups in society to register to vote", and that this would include "using social media channels and using our networks to promote voter registration messages."

56. We welcome the Electoral Commission's statement that it will be supporting Bite the Ballot's National Voter Registration Day on 5 February 2015, and also the fact the Government is considering how best to support activities which fall on National Voter Registration Day and beyond. We reaffirm the conclusions and recommendations on this subject we made in paragraphs 128 and 129 of our interim report.

Prompting people to register to vote

57. In our interim report, we considered the possibility of prompting people to register to vote when they accessed a variety of public services—such as when they register to pay council tax, or register with a GP—and also noted the possibility of EROs working with private companies to better publicise electoral registration. The Electoral Commission has agreed that "there is potential for EROs to capitalise on the many interactions citizens already have with a wide range of public services to help increase both the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers."[118] The Association of Electoral Administrators also supported this recommendation, and suggested that "all public services (including the former public utilities) should be included in such an arrangement."[119] The Commission has stated that it will "encourage and work with the Government and EROs to develop workable proposals for prompting people to register to vote or update their registration details when they carry out other key transactions with state agencies", but notes that this would require "a strong cross-government agreement". Specific suggestions we received for occasions when people could usefully be prompted to register to vote were when they received cards with their National Insurance numbers and also when private tenants had their deposits registered with a tenancy deposit protection scheme.[120] Bite the Ballot supported our recommendation that the Government make specific proposals about how people could be prompted to register to vote when they access other public services, and told us that "the UK can, and should, move to a system that empowers people to register to vote when they (a) access public services […] and (b) interact with Government".[121]

58. The Leader of the Opposition told us that the Labour Party believed that Government agencies, including the Passport Office and DVLA, should have a duty placed on them to raise the issue of voter registration when people come into contact with them.[122] He also told us that the Labour Party in Government would give Councils the power "to create mechanisms to reach private-rented tenants through Landlord Associations and registers." The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform specifically suggested that we challenge HMRC to include a 'signpost' to online voter registration alongside the notifications which are sent to every 15 year old of their National Insurance number, so as to direct young people to register to vote.[123] The Government has told us that there was an opportunity to explore how the benefits of IER could be best maximised, and that as part of this the Cabinet Office was "actively exploring options for collaboration between online electoral registration and other public sector digital transactional services."[124] The Government also told us that the Cabinet Office was "currently identifying the most appropriate official websites to promote voter registration by signposting the link to the on-line registration channel."

59. We reaffirm our previous recommendation, made in paragraph 133 of our interim report, concerning prompting people to register to vote when they access other services, and trust that the additional evidence we have received on this subject will inform future discussions in this area.

Registration at schools, colleges and universities

60. Our interim report noted that, given the low levels of registration of young people, there was a strong case for making greater efforts to register 16 to 18 year olds at schools and colleges. We asked the Secretary of State for Education to promote electoral registration at schools and colleges, and also called on EROs to work more closely with educational institutions.[125] The Electoral Commission has told us that its guidance to support EROs in planning for and delivering IER contains examples of tactics and activities that can be employed locally by EROs in engaging with target groups including under-18 year olds and students.[126] The Commission, working with several partner organisations, has also written to academic leaders at institutions across Great Britain to encourage their students to register to vote ahead of the General Election on 7 May 2015.[127] Activities academic institutions have been asked to undertake include:

·  E-mailing all students to let them know they can register at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote;

·  Holding registration drives at the beginning of classes and seminars; and

·  Displaying posters in college and university buildings.

The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform told us that "Liberal Democrats are working in Government to spread best practice among EROs, so that more approach [16 and 17 year olds] in the place where they can most easily be found: school or college."[128]

61. In relation to higher education, the Electoral Commission told us about two particular instances where EROs had worked with universities on electoral registration. These were:

·  In Sheffield: incorporating electoral registration into the student registration process, and

·  In Lancaster: having electoral registration information included on university enrolment software.

·  The National Union of Students told us that they supported efforts to integrate university and college enrolment with voter registration and stated that they had worked with organisations including the Electoral Commission to encourage University Vice-Chancellors to support action in making it easier and quicker to register to vote. Other instances given in response to our consultation included having sixth forms and universities register students, or provide information to Electoral Registration Officers to enable them to register young people.[129] Bite the Ballot specifically requested the extension to Great Britain of the Northern Ireland "schools initiative", where further education colleges are obliged to provide the Chief Electoral Officer with information on student registration so students can be invited to register to vote.[130] The Leader of the Opposition told us that the Labour Party in Government would "legislate to place a responsibility on schools to hold 'voter registration' sessions when their pupils reach the appropriate age" and "consider proposals to ensure Universities integrate the process of voter registration into enrolment each year."[131] The Government agreed with us that there was a strong case for making greater efforts to register 16 to 18 year olds at school and in college, and told us that the Cabinet Office was working with the Department for Education on promoting this in schools.[132]

62. 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 and on-line, from school. We have received several sensible suggestions for how this could be done, including e-mailing students with a link to online registration, holding registration drives at the beginning of classes, and displaying posters in educational buildings. We recommend that the Secretary of State for Education promote electoral registration to schools and colleges, along the lines set out by the Electoral Commission. 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. The Electoral Commission should also report on the implications of duplicating in Great Britain the "schools initiative" that operates in Northern Ireland. All of these proposals 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 between EROs and universities—such as those in Sheffield and Lancaster—should be replicated across the country.

Electoral Registration Officers (EROs)

The role of EROs

63. In our interim report we noted that EROs played a vital role in the electoral registration process, being responsible for the maintenance of the electoral registers for their area.[133] As part of making arrangements around electoral registration clearer to the public, Bite the Ballot has recommended that the Government "should explain the remit and role of EROs" on the Cabinet Office website.[134]

64. We welcome Bite the Ballot's recommendation that the Government should explain the remit and role of Electoral Registration Officers. Such an explanation would increase the transparency of the role, and help to ensure that members of the public know what to expect from their local ERO. We recommend that the Government publish online an explanation of the role of EROs, their duties and how members of the public can contact their local ERO.

PERFORMANCE STANDARDS FOR EROS

65. The Electoral Commission produces performance standards for EROs, and we noted in our interim report that these had had a positive impact on the performance of EROs, although there was room for them to be made more stretching by, for example, including best practice from high performers, so as to encourage higher levels of voter registration.[135] The Electoral Commission told us that it had noted a number of examples of EROs working to enhance voter registration and that it would "continue to work to support the identification and sharing of such examples of good practice."[136] Specifically in relation to IER, the Commission stated that it had "already been working to facilitate sharing of knowledge and experiences between EROs facing similar challenges in planning and preparing for the introduction of IER", and that it planned to build on this throughout the transition to IER. The Electoral Commission plans to review the performance standards for EROs after the transition to IER is complete, but that it "remain[s] cautious about the feasibility and cost of setting and measuring registration levels".[137] The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Voter Registration told us: "The current performance standards, whilst, at first, were welcome, are now in need of both review and urgent reform to cope with the nature of the challenge facing EROs and the self-assessed 'tick box' nature of the exercise."[138]

RECOGNISING NOTABLE SUCCESSES

66. Our interim report suggested that notable successes in electoral registration should be recognised, and we also stated that MPs should be more closely involved in the process of monitoring electoral registration and working with EROs.[139] The Electoral Commission welcomed our view that Parliamentarians had a vital role to play in working with EROs, and stated that it would "welcome any parliamentary time given to the scrutiny of registration issues."[140] The Association of Electoral Administrators welcomed our recommendation on recognising notable successes, and considered that "it should be required as good practice for each ERO to report annually to his/her local authority on the results of the annual canvass and other salient registration issues."[141] The Government told us that this proposal was currently being discussed by the Cabinet Office and Electoral Commission, stating that the Electoral Commission had launched a project to identify, recognise and share 'what works' in relation to elections, and that the Commission intended to "evaluate its success after this initial round, with a view to potentially extending it to cover electoral registration over the 2015 canvass."[142]

67. Although we welcome the fact the Electoral Commission has launched a project identifying, recognising and sharing 'what works' in relation to elections, we believe it is a priority to establish what works in relation to electoral registration, particularly given the current transition to Individual Electoral Registration. We recommend that this work begin as soon as possible, and certainly before the 2015 canvass.

HOUSE TO HOUSE CANVASSING

68. Our interim report noted that EROs had a legal duty to conduct house-to-house enquiries as part of the canvass. We called on the Government to communicate this duty much more strongly, and recommended that enforcement action be taken against any ERO who repeatedly fails to fulfil the statutory duties in a way which has an adverse effect on the quality of voter registration in their area.[143] The Electoral Commission will be reporting on the 2014 canvass shortly, and told us that if there were any need to take action in relation to house-to-house canvassing outside of its reporting cycle then it would inform us. We have received no such notification. The Government has told us:

    There is no mechanism within the current legal framework for registration for the Government to take enforcement action against EROs that do not fulfil their statutory duties beyond the power to issue a Secretary of State direction under section 52 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.[144]

The Government added that "prosecutions in England and Wales are a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which is an independent prosecuting authority and Ministers have no influence over its decision making."

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION

69. Only public authorities listed in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are subject to requests for information under that Act. Electoral Registration Officers are not included in the list, although local authorities are. In our interim report we found that this appeared to be an oversight, and recommended that the Government take action to designate EROs as public authorities under the FOI Act 2000.[145] The Electoral Commission subsequently told us that its guidance for EROs makes clear that while EROs are not a public authority under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, they should where possible disclose requested information.[146] Similarly, the Association of Electoral Administrators told us that it "encourages EROs to respond to requests for information as though they were subject to the Act and supports this recommendation."[147] Our recommendation received support from Brent Council, which stated that this "would allow for greater scrutiny of electoral registration activity".[148] The Government agreed that there "is a case for bringing EROs and ROs under the FOIA", but stated: "There is insufficient time remaining in this Parliament to complete the required steps (including formal consultation with EROs and ROs), so this will necessarily be an issue for the next Government."[149]

CONCLUSION

70. We reaffirm the conclusions and recommendations, made in paragraphs 104 to 115 of our interim report, concerning Electoral Registration Officers. We trust the additional evidence we have received on these points, as set out above, can inform progress being made on the areas we have considered.

Electoral Commission targets

71. Our interim report challenged one of the Electoral Commission's measures of success in its corporate plan, which was that "completeness of the registers does not deteriorate". We took the view that the current electoral registers were not sufficiently complete and it would therefore not be a success for them to merely not deteriorate. The Electoral Commission has stated:

    Across the electoral community there is a widely shared goal of enabling all eligible people to be able to participate in elections, and so we all aim to see 100% accurate and complete electoral registers. However, recognising that there will always be population movement between registers at any given point in time, it is difficult to envisage that accuracy and completeness of greater than 98% is attainable.[150]

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Voter Registration told us: "If the EC's stated goal is that 'every person eligible to be registered to vote is on the electoral register' then it should be encouraged to aspire to near-perfect 100% levels (of completeness) as possible."[151] The Government's response to our interim report stated:

    As the Electoral Commission is an independent body established by Parliament, it is overseen by the Speaker's Committee. Consequently, key performance measures for the Electoral Commission are a matter for that Committee.[152]

72. The Electoral Commission's goal should be that every person eligible to be registered to vote is on the electoral register, and we welcome the Commission's statement that the electoral community has a shared aim to see 100% accurate and complete electoral registers. The Commission's aim to have one million more voters registered ahead of the 2015 general election is encouraging, and is a substantial increase on previous targets for registration campaigns, although this is only one step in resolving the fact that 7.5 million people are not correctly registered to vote, and that there are also millions of British citizens living overseas that are not registered to vote.

73. We remain disappointed 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". As we stated in our interim report, 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 Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission review the Electoral Commission's success measures in respect of voter registration and set much more challenging measures for the completeness of the electoral register.

74. We reaffirm the conclusions and recommendations, made in paragraphs 122 and 123 of our interim report, concerning maximising registration and registration campaigns.


95   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 130-44 Back

96   Section 5, Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Back

97   Written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 72] Back

98   Written evidence from Southern Branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 89] Back

99   Written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 72], Simon Cramp [PVE 87], Helen Aldred [PVE 124], George Wilkinson [PVE 125], survey results [Annex 4] Back

100   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

101   Written evidence from Bite the Ballot [PVE 115] Back

102   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 2 Back

103   Written evidence from Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform [PVE 106] Back

104   Voter engagement in the UK, para 144 Back

105   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

106   Written evidence from the Intergenerational Foundation [PVE 76], John Metcalf [PVE 93] Back

107   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 12 Back

108   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 139-41 Back

109   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

110   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

111   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

112   Written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 72] Back

113   Written evidence from Brent Council [PVE 49] Back

114   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 11 Back

115   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 126-9 Back

116   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

117   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 8 Back

118   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

119   Written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 72] Back

120   Written evidence from the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform [PVE 106], All-Party Parliamentary Group on Voter Registration [PVE 114] Back

121   Written evidence from Bite the Ballot [PVE 115] Back

122   Written evidence from Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Opposition [PVE 123] Back

123   Written evidence from Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform [PVE 106] Back

124   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 9 Back

125   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 134-5 Back

126   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

127   Universities and colleges asked to support student voter registration drive, Electoral Commission, 14 January 2015 Back

128   Written evidence from Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform [PVE 106] Back

129   Written evidence from Rob Goldspink [PVE 24], Jade Azim [PVE 25], Professor Jonathan Tonge and Dr Andrew Mycock [PVE 90] Back

130   Report of the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland 2010-11, HC 1379, 2011 Back

131   Written evidence from Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Opposition [PVE 123] Back

132   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 9 Back

133   Voter engagement in the UK, para 99 Back

134   Written evidence from Bite the Ballot [PVE 115] Back

135   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 104-5 Back

136   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

137   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

138   Written evidence from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Voter Registration [PVE 114] Back

139   Voter engagement in the UK, para 105 Back

140   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

141   Written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 72] Back

142   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 7 Back

143   Voter engagement in the UK, para 110 Back

144   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 8 Back

145   Voter engagement in the UK, paras 112-5 Back

146   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

147   Written evidence from the Association of Electoral Administrators [PVE 72] Back

148   Written evidence from Brent Council [PVE 49] Back

149   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 8 Back

150   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [PVE 81] Back

151   Written evidence from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Voter Registration [PVE 114] Back

152   Voter engagement in the UK: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, page 7 Back


 
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