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

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  Democracy in the UK is working less well than it used to and we need to move swiftly to pre-empt a crisis. Millions of people are missing from the UK's electoral registers; at the most recent estimate, 7.5 million people are not correctly registered to vote. Many of those who are registered to vote—and in many elections the majority—choose not to participate at elections, be they for the UK Parliament, local government, or the European Parliament. At the last general election almost 16 million registered voters, 34.9% of the electorate, chose not to participate, more than voted for candidates of any one major party. Include the number of people who are not correctly registered to vote in this figure, and the number of people who did not participate was greater than the number of votes cast for candidates of the two largest parties, or of both of the Coalition parties. That was the election which recorded the highest proportion of registered voters—65.1%—turning out at any UK election to take place in the 21st century—although turnout for the recent Scottish independence referendum was 84.6%. (Paragraph 1)

2.  This is not a new problem, but it is one that has gone unaddressed for too long. In a modern democracy, it is unacceptable that millions of people who are eligible to vote are missing from electoral registers. It is desirable in a representative democracy for turnout at elections of all kinds to be higher—and ideally far higher—than has been the case in recent years. It is essential that the scale of the response is equal to the task. Aside from these purely arithmetic measures of voter engagement, there is clearly also a serious problem around disengagement from, and dissatisfaction with, politics more broadly. (Paragraph 2)

3.  Many thousands of people have given us their views on voter engagement. These responses are particularly important to our deliberations on this subject, because the views of the public must be central to any discussion around electoral arrangements. It was for this reason we produced an interim report in November 2014, with a view to consulting the public before bringing forward our final report. We are extremely grateful for all of the responses we received, whether by e-mail, letter, social media, formal written submission or survey response. These have been invaluable to informing our deliberations and helping us refine the conclusions and recommendations presented here. (Paragraph 6)

4.  As part of our consultation we wrote to the leader of each party represented at the House of Commons asking for their views on our interim report. We received responses from the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. These responses are extremely welcome, and we hope demonstrate a commitment on the part of those parties to take improving voter engagement seriously. (Paragraph 7)

Reasons for low levels of voter engagement

5.  It is disappointing that the Government has decided the issue of party funding will not be considered further until after the General Election. This is an issue which has gone unresolved for too long, and further delay is not acceptable. We look to an early resolution to this issue in the next Parliament. (Paragraph 12)

6.  A large number of respondents to our consultation felt that the First Past the Post electoral system disenfranchised them, and meant that for them it was not worth voting. It is hard to dispute that in safe seats, where the incumbent has a large majority and the party of the elected representative is unlikely to change at a general election, there is a reduced incentive to participate at elections. This can only have a negative impact on voter engagement. We note that a wide range of electoral systems are already in use for various elections that take place across the UK, and the supremacy of one particular electoral system should therefore not be presumed. (Paragraph 16)

7.  With respect to the reasons for current low levels of voter engagement, the conclusions and recommendations in paragraphs 15 to 40 of our interim report stand, although we have expanded above on the concerns that have been expressed about the value of voting. We hope the additional evidence we have received on these points, as set out above, will inform progress on these issues. (Paragraph 19)

Recent developments

8.  In a time of austerity it is vital that funding for elections is protected. We welcome the additional £9.8 million the Government has made available to maximise registration during the transition to IER, particularly in light of our recommendation that the Government should look favourably on requests for additional funding. Now this funding has been made available, it is important that it is distributed to those organisations which can most effectively maximise registration ahead of the general election. We recommend that the Government move with speed to make these new funds for maximising electoral registration available, and report back to Parliament before Dissolution with further details of how those funds which are not being allocated to local authorities are to be distributed. We also recommend that the Government should recognise the possibility that further funding will be necessary to support the implementation of IER and to ensure that electoral registers are maintained and enhanced in the future, and that it should be prepared to allocate further funds if a proven need is demonstrated. (Paragraph 29)

9.  We reaffirm the conclusions and recommendations, made in paragraphs 51 to 59 of our interim report, concerning the transition to IER and the Electoral Commission's proposals for combatting electoral fraud. (Paragraph 31)

Unequal registration and participation

10.  We welcome the actions that the Government has undertaken to identify options for making registration and voting easier for people with disabilities, but we note that these fall short of meeting the recommendation we made that the Government publish clear and stretching proposals setting out how registration and voting will be made more accessible to people with disabilities. (Paragraph 36)

11.  The proposal for removing the current 15-year limit on British citizens living overseas from participating in UK elections should be considered as part of a wider package of measures aimed at increasing engagement by this group, as this change would simplify the eligibility criteria and make it easier to promote registration to British citizens no longer resident in the UK. (Paragraph 41)

12.  EU and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK are amongst the most under-represented groups on the electoral register. We welcome the statements from the Electoral Commission that information specifically for non-UK citizens will be available online, and that they are one of the groups its public awareness campaigns will target. We recommend that the Electoral Commission take active steps to communicate this information directly to those groups to whom it is relevant. (Paragraph 44)

13.  We welcome the progress that is being made on considering how arrangements for non-British EU citizens participating at European Parliament elections can be simplified, and trust this will be resolved well before the 2019 elections. (Paragraph 45)

14.  We reaffirm the conclusions and recommendations from chapter 5 of our interim report concerning combatting unequal levels of voter registration and participation at elections. We hope the additional evidence we have received and the further recommendations we have made on these points, as set out above, can inform progress on these issues. (Paragraph 46)

Improving electoral registration

15.  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. (Paragraph 50)

16.  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. (Paragraph 52)

17.  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. (Paragraph 54)

18.  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. (Paragraph 56)

19.  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. (Paragraph 59)

20.  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. (Paragraph 62)

21.  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. (Paragraph 64)

22.  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. (Paragraph 67)

23.  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. (Paragraph 70)

24.  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. (Paragraph 72)

25.  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. (Paragraph 73)

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

Improving voter turnout

27.  We have previously received persuasive evidence to indicate that enabling people to register to vote closer to the date of an election, or on an Election Day itself, would lead to increased registration rates and turnout at elections, and our consultation has shown there is some public support for the proposal, although the response to our consultation was mixed. We reaffirm our recommendation that 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. Assuming these practical challenges can be overcome, there is no good reason for retaining administrative procedures that create barriers to participating at elections. (Paragraph 81)

28.  Our public consultation has demonstrated significant public demand for holding elections on the weekend, and there is evidence that shows this could have a positive impact on levels of turnout. We recommend that the Government explore proposals for weekend voting—with possible alternatives being extended voting and the designation of Election Days as public holidays. We acknowledge the resource implications of these proposals, particularly for rural communities. (Paragraph 84)

29.  Online voting received significant support from those who responded to our consultation, with almost 60% of the more than 16,000 survey responses we received favouring the proposal. That said, many highlighted the need for an online voting system to be completely secure. The acceptance of postal voting and the move to online voter registration makes online voting the next logical step in making the election process more accessible from start to finish. In developing a system of online voting, serious consideration needs to be given to concerns about electoral fraud and secrecy of the ballot. We believe that online voting could lead to a substantial increase in the level of participation at UK elections, particularly for groups such as young people and British citizens living overseas, who are currently under-represented in electoral participation. We recommend that the Government come forward with an assessment of the challenges and the likely impact on turnout of online voting by the end of 2015. The Government should then run pilots in the next Parliament with a view to all electors having the choice of voting online at the 2020 general election, assuming the pilots are successful and it has been possible to develop a system for online voting which is secure and has the public's confidence in its integrity. (Paragraph 88)

30.  The extension of the postal vote has been a success. Those who choose to vote by post should be facilitated to do so. The Committee recognises the importance of postal voting in increasing democratic participation and calls on political parties, Electoral Registration Officers, the Electoral Commission and the Government to make postal voting more accessible. We note with concern that under the transitional arrangements for IER, almost half a million people who were previously registered to vote by postal ballot and were not confirmed automatically will lose their entitlement to a postal vote if they do not register under the new system. (Paragraph 91)

31.  We received mixed views on the possibility of holding further trials of all-postal voting, with the majority of respondents opposing the proposal. That said, we believe that in the future local authorities could pursue such trials in circumstances where they commanded community support. (Paragraph 92)

32.  We reaffirm the conclusions and recommendations, from paragraphs 165 to 167, of our interim report concerning public awareness of and the provision of information. We trust the additional evidence we have received on these points, as set out above, can inform future debate on these issues, and we welcome the fact that Bite the Ballot are producing a voter advice app to help inform voters. We particularly welcome the work of the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy, which has looked in detail at how Parliament can become more accessible and better inform the public about its work. Such changes can only be beneficial to voter engagement. (Paragraph 96)

33.  The response to our consultation on whether the franchise should be extended to 16 and 17 year olds has been mixed, with strong views on both sides of the debate. We previously received some significant evidence that extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds could have a positive impact not just on voter engagement for young people, but also on voter engagement overall in the medium to long term. Committee members hold a variety of views about the desirability of extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, but we recommend that Parliament leads a national discussion on this matter and that a motion on the issue is brought forward in the 2015 Parliament to allow the House of Commons a free vote on the principle, with a view to the introduction of legislation if appropriate. It would be valuable for the Electoral Commission to explore the practical implications of any change to the franchise, so as to inform the decision of Parliament and any subsequent legislative changes made by the Government. (Paragraph 102)

34.  We reaffirm the conclusion and recommendation, made in paragraph 172 of our interim report, concerning citizenship education, and trust that the additional evidence we have received on this subject will inform future discussions about this issue. (Paragraph 104)

35.  International experience demonstrates conclusively that making voting compulsory ensures that the vast majority of eligible voters participate at elections. Some members of the Committee believe there is a strong case for including compulsory voting in a package of measures to meet the threat of disengagement. However, other members believe that voting should not, as a matter of principle, be made compulsory, and that people should be free not to participate at elections if they so choose. We note the Government's view that voting is a civic responsibility and that the importance of political participation should be reinforced without the need for a sanction for non-compliance. The response to our consultation was mixed, with similar numbers in favour and against. In light of the mixed views we received with regards to compulsory voting, we recommend that the Government consult early in the next Parliament on the possibility of making voting compulsory for certain types of election, and report to the House by May 2016 to set out its view. This would encourage debate about voting, as a right and civic duty, which we believe could only be beneficial to voter engagement. (Paragraph 107)

36.  Having the option to vote for "none of the above" on the ballot paper is the proposal which has had the largest support among those who have given their views to the surveys we have drawn upon. This change would enable people to participate at elections even if they did not wish to vote for any of the candidates presented. If large numbers of people did choose to cast their vote in this way it would serve as a wakeup call for candidates and parties that they needed to do more to gain the support of the electorate. We recommend that the Government consult on including, on ballot papers for national elections, an option for voters who wish to participate but not vote for any of the candidates presented, and report to the House on this proposal by May 2016. (Paragraph 110)

37.  A significant number of those who responded to our consultation have highlighted the adverse impact on voter engagement of the electoral system used for certain elections, and have called for a variety of different electoral arrangements. Some Members of this Committee believe that there is a case for reforming the electoral system used for parliamentary and other elections, but others believe we should retain the current First Past the Post system. We believe that there is a need to respond to the concerns about current electoral arrangements and have a public debate about the way forward. We recommend that, early in the next Parliament, the Government commission research on alternatives to the First Past the Post voting system for general elections—and experience of these both in the UK and abroad—with a view to consulting the public on whether there is a need to change the electoral system used for certain elections. Parliament may also wish to take this debate forward, either by establishing a Commission to consider the matter in detail, or possibly by working with a research partner—much as we have with King's College London on our work into the prospects for codifying the UK constitution. We would welcome any such proposals. (Paragraph 113)

38.  Given its importance to the UK's democracy we feel that there is a need to revisit the issue of electoral administration on the sole basis of the convenience of electors. There is clear demand from the public for changes to current electoral arrangements, as demonstrated by the volume of responses we received to our consultation. If taken together, changes to electoral arrangements would demonstrate that "the powers that be" are serious about voter engagement. That is not to say that the solution to improving voter engagement lies solely in making the process more convenient, or providing more information to voters, but we believe there is benefit to making improvements in this area, as well as addressing broader political issues. We recommend that the Government, working with the Electoral Commission and EROs, bring forward a package of reforms to electoral arrangements to increase accessibility and turnout, and establish a series of pilots early in the next Parliament to test the various proposals that we have made with a view to making permanent changes to electoral arrangements by 2020. (Paragraph 115)


39.  The experience of the Scottish independence referendum, and in particular the extraordinarily high turnout, demonstrates that the public will participate in a poll when the circumstances are right. We note that the high turnout in this case was not due to any technical innovation, but because the vote was one of significance, the public was engaged with the question being asked, and every vote was seen to matter. If we are truly to see the electorate re-engaged by UK elections, action needs to be taken to ensure that the same things can be said about every election held in the United Kingdom. (Paragraph 118)

40.  At the conclusion of our interim report, we noted the need for serious changes to both the electoral arrangements in the UK, and its political culture, if the fall in voter engagement was to be halted and reversed. This finding stands, and we have received a significant degree of support from members of the public for many changes to electoral arrangements that could increase levels of engagement. It is now for the Government, political parties and individual politicians to take forward our work and re-engage the electorate. (Paragraph 120)

41.  We reaffirm our call for political parties, individual politicians and the Government to take action to re-engage the electorate. We call again on each political party to include plans in its manifesto for the 2015 general election for improving voter engagement—in terms of voter registration and turnout—as well as details of how they will work to rebuild the trust of the public in politics more broadly. It is encouraging that the responses from a number of political parties embrace the need for reforms in this area, but it is crucial that in the next Parliament the Government rises to the challenge presented by current low levels of engagement. Specific proposals that should be considered for inclusion in party manifestos include:

·  The civic and legal duty of all citizens to register to vote;

·  Registering to vote closer up to or on the day of an election;

·  Online voting;

·  Weekend voting, extended voting or designating Election Day a public holiday;

·  Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds; and

·  Compulsory voting. (Paragraph 121)

42.  With the date of the next, and future, elections set out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, it is possible for the Government and Opposition parties to consider what plans they wish to make in this area and discuss them with the Electoral Commission and Civil Service so they are ready for implementation immediately after the general election. We recommend that each party take up the Electoral Commission's offer to discuss policy changes that might be relevant to the Commission's work, to inform the parties' manifestos and speed implementation of any changes to be made after the general election. (Paragraph 123)

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Prepared 5 February 2015