Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Individual voter registration

I see from Liberal Democrat Voice: Government finally agrees to introduce individual electoral registration that the government has come round to the idea of individual voter registration for Great Britain (Northern Ireland has had it since 2003). I am not sure if this is the best move. As with many things related to our electoral system the devil is in the detail, a detail often ignored by people making sweeping statements on the matter.

Under the current system, voter registration is done on a household basis. Every year forms are sent to all households to fill in with details of all eligible voters in the household. From recollection if the details have not changed then there is no need to return the form and the assumption is that the existing registered voters are still there. It is possible to register mid year as well.

You'll immediately note the obvious problem that it's quite easy for "ghosts" to linger on the electoral register simply because nobody has sent an update for the household. As I've noted before (Malapportionment in the UK?) this can result in people appearing twice or more on the register, even though they can legally only cast one vote, with knock-on effects on turnout. This is one of a number of factors that contributes to urban seats generally having a low official turnout.

Another problem is that when it comes to dwellings of multiple occupancy a lot of people really don't know what does and doesn't constitute "the household". Often the addresses used reflect the location of the post box rather than the actual section rented and so people aren't aware of the way the property is divided up on the registration database, to say nothing of the format (e.g. is it "1A" or "Room A, Flat 1"?). University students are amongst the worst hit because halls of residence usually have central mail facilities and numerous different ways of expressing the individual room address, which of course is never actually directly delivered to. (I have heard many stories of well prepared freshers, or perhaps their parents, buying a TV Licence before arriving at university, only for the student to later get threatening letters from enforcement - delivered late because they're to a room number - for the simple reason that the licence is not in the format the licence database, and only the licence database, uses.) The solution here has been for universities to register all their residential students, but I haven't this practice to be universal.

Then there's the issue of fraud. What is to stop somebody signing up loads of fake occupants, then subsequently registering them all for postal votes?

So how would individual registration improve things?

Well it could introduce a greater requirement to prove the existence of the individual. Of course this brings its own problems when you get people who don't actually have much proving they live at their current address because they're renting and don't want to go through the hassle of changing everything too many times.

The biggest problem by far is that many potential voters would never get the forms themselves, and not have the support of someone filling in the form on their behalf. The student situation is one of the most obvious, but it also applies to many over dwellings of multiple occupancy who would never get the forms. There is a very real likelihood that many more citizens would end up disenfranchised through no fault of their own. A real danger could arise that political parties start engaging in registration drives, aiming to win purely by packing the voting roll rather than being the most popular option.

And this doesn't even address the issue of how voters get taken off the register, unless it will be automatic if no form is received. Once again the current bureaucracy isn't really set up for this.

If individual registration is to work it will require a much better system than there is at the moment. It will require some imaginative and flexible thinking about how to ensure that voters are not excluded by awkward hurdles, and it must accept that not everyone lives in a house with a direct letterbox where everyone will get the forms. Unfortunately in my experience those who run the nuts and bolts of elections are frequently either unable or unwilling to exercise common sense and instead making things even harder than they need be.

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