An electoral system fit for today? More to be done Contents

An electoral system fit for today? More to be done

Chapter 1: Introduction and background


1.Electoral registration is key to a robust and resilient democracy. The measure of an effective electoral registration system is how complete and accurate the registers are. If completeness levels are low it means there are eligible voters who are not registered and therefore disenfranchised. If the registers are not accurate the system will be vulnerable to fraud. Unchecked, disenfranchisement and weak safeguards against fraud can undermine trust in democracy.

2.Across the democratic world, registers are used to confirm and regulate eligibility to vote. Registers typically consist of the names and addresses of voters and can also be used for secondary purposes such as credit checks, the drawing of electoral boundaries, and selection for jury service. Electoral registration in the UK differs from many democracies in that it is not linked to any national or local population register, neither of which exists in the UK.

3.The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 [the Act] was the latest of a series of measures intended to reform and modernise electoral registration and administration. It enabled the abolition of the ‘household’ registration system that had existed since the Victorian era, in which it was the responsibility of the ‘head of household’ to register all individuals residing at the address. This was replaced with a system by which every individual is responsible for their own registration; this system is known as Individual Electoral Registration (IER).

4.At the same time, the Act enabled an online registration system to be introduced, making the application process more accessible to electors. Together, these measures revolutionised the system of registration in Great Britain, bringing many advantages for the electoral process, but also accompanying challenges. The Act was the culmination of years of movement towards an individual registration system; this had first been proposed in the UK by the Electoral Commission in 2003, and was introduced on a voluntary basis by legislation in 2009.

5.The Act also introduced a number of general administrative reforms. Among the most notable of these were the provisions to reform the annual canvass, a long-standing system by which electoral administrators refresh registers by contacting all households in their area to confirm their details. The current process has been subject to regular criticism for its perceived excessive bureaucracy and administrative burden. Part 2 of the Act also introduced a range of administrative reforms designed to improve the running of elections in the UK.

6.A short history of electoral registration can be found at Appendix 5. A summary of the contents of the Act and its implementation can be found at Appendix 6.

The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013: why this inquiry now?

7.The Select Committee was first appointed in June 2019 to consider post-legislative scrutiny of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. We were reappointed in the new session of Parliament following the 2019 General election, with a reporting deadline of June 2020. Background to the post-legislative scrutiny process can be found in Appendix 7.

8.Since the Act was passed in 2013, its provisions have been tested by a succession of major electoral events unprecedented in recent British history. Even though the Act is still relatively recent it is, therefore, more than timely that its performance be assessed against its objectives.

9.The Act was intended in particular to provide for improvements to the accuracy and completeness of registers. An accurate and complete register is the bedrock of our democracy, and efforts to enhance accuracy and completeness must be made to ensure the integrity of the register year-round.

10.In assessing the quality of registration, we stress that electoral registers have multiple purposes and do not just exist to enable access to voting at election time. For example, registers are used to draw council and Parliamentary electoral boundaries, for selecting people for jury service and are used for credit checks. It is important therefore that registers are as accurate and complete as possible not just at election times but all year round.

11.Given the importance of fraud in the Government’s decision to introduce the Act, we have also given this issue much consideration, assessing how far the Act has been effective in tackling fraud. In addition, the current Government has committed to introducing legislation to require compulsory voter identification at polling stations, and to tightening procedures for postal and proxy voting.1 We have considered these measures as part of a wider assessment of fraud and electoral malpractice in the UK.

12.In publishing this report we hope not just to set out priorities for legislative and policy action, but to provide guidelines for how registration and administration might be further improved in what is likely (but not certain) to be a relatively calmer period for administrators, legislators and voters with regard to major electoral activity.

How we approached the inquiry

13.The principal objective of any post-legislative scrutiny inquiry is first to assess the Act under scrutiny and to determine whether it has achieved its stated objectives. As indicated above, noting that a key priority of the Government in initiating the legislation was to tackle fraud, we have also devoted the later chapters of our report to assessing this subject, including an assessment of the Government’s proposals for mandatory voter ID.

14.We are also aware that debate over reforms to registration and administration takes place in the context of a wider debate around reform and streamlining of electoral law overall. A recent report from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee highlighted that electoral law needs urgent review; law is currently spread out over multiple overlapping pieces of legislation, making it extremely complex to navigate for campaigners, administrators and voters.2 Similarly, the recent report of the Law Commissions on electoral law noted its complexity and made wide-ranging proposals for reform.3 Although this question was not within the specific remit of our inquiry, it was necessary to acknowledge this wider context and we consider this issue in Chapter 3.

15.We published two calls for evidence and undertook 16 public evidence sessions with a total of 30 witnesses. We received a total of 42 written submissions.

16.Our inquiry was interrupted by the UK Parliamentary election on 12 December 2019. We decided to gather specific evidence on the election, firstly by holding a seminar with Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) shortly after our reappointment, and then by issuing a second call for evidence inviting respondents to offer their reflections and evidence on matters to do with the running of this election. We have also sought to draw on evidence of what works with regard to accurate and complete registration from abroad, in particular holding an evidence session with the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. Within the UK we have also considered the system in Northern Ireland, where IER and voter ID have been in place since 2002.

17.We were also keen not to confine our evidence-gathering to Westminster and so visited the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which has experienced the challenges of maintaining a complete and accurate register in an inner city context, as well as having dealt with particularly notable levels of electoral malpractice. We spoke with their Chief Executive, Head of Electoral Services and political leaders to discuss these experiences and what lessons and ideas may be drawn from them.

18.At a late stage of evidence-gathering our inquiry was interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Social distancing measures meant that we were obliged to cancel our final four oral evidence sessions, with political party representatives, charities, the Electoral Commission and the Minister of State for the Constitution Chloe Smith MP. In each case, we received written submissions in lieu of this evidence.

Structure of the report

19.The report comprises five chapters including this introduction, and is structured as follows.

20.Chapter 2 focuses on the Individual Electoral Registration system introduced by Part 1 of the Act, including its implementation, accuracy and completeness issues, administrative and financial burdens, options for further modernisation, and the role of education and civic engagement in reaching under-registered groups.

21.Chapter 3 covers the issue of annual canvass reform, including the invitation to register process, learning from pilots, and proposed data sharing mechanisms. It then goes on to cover the administrative reforms included in Part 2 of the Act, before discussing the issue of wider reforms to electoral law and provision for overseas voters.

22.Chapter 4 focuses on electoral fraud, discussing its overall incidence, the effectiveness of the Act in tackling it, wider electoral fraud issues going beyond the Act, and the handling of fraud complaints.

23.Finally, Chapter 5 focuses on the Government’s plans to bring in mandatory voter ID, including views on its importance, implementation issues, potential impact on electoral turnout, and debates around a national identity card system.

Key recommendations

24.Our report covers a large number of issues in relation to the Act and makes a series of recommendations for improving electoral registration and administration in future. While we believe all are important, there are a series of changes that we believe in particular would improve the administrative and registration process, enhance democratic integrity, and help EROs, their staff and the voting public during election periods.

Impact of COVID-19

25.As noted, our inquiry was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A notable immediate impact of the pandemic was the cancellation of the local and regional elections that were due to be held in May 2020. It is also clear that the pandemic may have short term and potentially long term consequences for the running of elections. These might include:

26.The outbreak occurred towards the end of our evidence-gathering programme and so we did not take specific evidence on its impact. Nonetheless, we are aware that the pandemic and its consequences will have a considerable impact on electoral administration and our recommendations should be considered in this light, particularly with regard to the workload of administrators, election day management and the use of postal voting.

27.Any further reforms to the system of electoral registration and administration should only be implemented in close collaboration with administrators, so that any additional challenges relating to COVID-19 can be effectively identified, addressed and managed.


28.We are grateful to everyone who submitted written evidence or took the time to appear before us. Their knowledge, expertise and experience were invaluable in informing our investigations and the conclusions and recommendations in this report.

29.In particular, we heard a considerable amount of evidence from EROs across the UK, in public evidence sessions, written submissions, our post-election seminar and our visit to Tower Hamlets. Their representative body, the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA), was also a regular source of advice, assistance and support and we are grateful to them for their help as well as for the evidence they gave to the inquiry directly.

30.We would also like to acknowledge more generally the exceptional professionalism with which administrators have dealt with the unprecedented series of major electoral events that have taken place in recent years, while also managing the implementation of the new registration system and navigating the legal and administrative challenges of existing electoral law. It is clear that, where the system of running and managing elections works well, it is due in large part to their dedication and hard work.

31.We were also given considerable assistance throughout the inquiry by the Cabinet Office and Electoral Commission and are grateful for them for supporting and providing information to us.

32.We would also like to thank our two specialist advisers, Professor Maria Sobolewska and Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, who provided invaluable guidance and advice throughout the inquiry.

2 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Electoral Law: The Urgent Need For Review (First Report, Session 2019, HC 244)

3 The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission, Electoral Law: A joint final report (Session 2019–20, HC 145)

© Parliamentary copyright 2020