Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rethinking voter registration

The second of my pieces provoked by Tim Archer's ConservativeHome piece Why we need electoral reform – and it's got nothing to do with AV.

Tim writes:

Tower Hamlets is known for its overcrowding and currently has 221 homes where more than 8 people are registered to vote. These include a number of infamous Labour party households. For example, one Labour councillor who lives in a 3 bedroom property has 12 people registered to vote at his home – 7 of those were added on to the register in the month before the election. His sister who lives locally has 13 voters in her flat, two brothers have 16 voters in their two flats and three cousins have a further 23 voters between their 3 flats. That's 64 voters in one family between 7 homes, all in Tower Hamlets. Most of those were registered in the last 20 days before the election and had postal votes.

Many people campaigning in other parts of the countries have similar tales of finding homes that have rather more people registered to vote there than could possibly be accommodated. The pattern suggests fraud but it must also be noted that a great degree of accidental and semi-legitimate registration happens as well. This has particular implications for the plans to get greater equality of constituency size, since the numbers used will be the registered voters.

For those not familiar with the process of registration, it works roughly as follows:
  1. Each year the council election services send out a form to every "household" they have on their list (I'll come back to this later), listing all voters currently on the register.
  2. The "head of the household" is required to remove adults no longer living there, add anyone who is (including children who will soon reach the age of majority) and sign the form before sending it back.
  3. If a form isn't returned the election services will try to arrange a visit to call on the property to ask directly.
  4. Throughout the year it's possible to be added to through the "rolling register" process by sending a supplementary form.
It sounds simple doesn't it? But many problems arise in practice and the result is a lot of people find they are not on the register at all; whilst others remain on the register long after they have moved away or died. Some homes have people registered to them who have never lived there.

It is very easy to make a deliberately fraudulent return on the register and include extra names (and for that matter register them for permanent postal votes). But it's also surprisingly easy to make accidental errors, and the system isn't able to cope with them too well.

The first problem is that the system is not easy to understand. The "head of the household" is not well defined, especially in some arrangements such as student halls of residents, joint flats and the like. It is very easy to misunderstand the form and provide the wrong information. Examples I've found over the years include:
  • People putting down their entire family instead of just the adults living there.
  • New occupants of a home failing to remove previous occupants.
  • Tenants putting their landlords down instead of themselves.
So far all these sound clearly wrong, if understandable. But often there simply aren't the resources available to check up on these
  • Adult offspring being included on the register, even if they have never lived at the current address, on a "this will always be your home" attitude.
  • Adult offspring being included on the register so that they can more easily get services such as bank accounts whilst renting short term.
The second of these is a real problem where the solutions could have awkward consequences. The root of the problem is the use of the register for non-electoral purposes and the result is that people find they have difficultly completing credit checks and the like without it. Many who rent in the short to medium term also don't like the hassle of having to change details when they move, especially if they will not be able to receive mail sent to old addresses. (And when bank statements get bounced back there's a danger of banks automatically freezing account access.) Something has to be done to limit the use of the register purely to election matters, but what alternatives will be in place to deal with the latter such cases? And the former is often a greyer area than it may seem.
  • Someone who has moved into the home since the annual register has not been added.
This one is quite common and the problem is knowing what to do and where to go. (The best place is Electoral Commission: Voter registration and the electoral roll where you can get a registration form.) What is even less well known is how a person can take themselves off the register mid year - the Electoral Commission form in theory offers this but in practice many do not realise they were on the register and of course this doesn't help with registrations at multiple addresses.
  • A dwelling of multiple occupancy has a flawed or missing registration.
The biggest cases are student halls of residence but there are many others. At the root level there is a difference in addresses between "where to send the mail" and "where you are registered as living", and voting is one of the areas that brings the distinction to the forefront. (TV Licences are another, and they too have problems.) For a standalone house occupied by a single family things are clear, but student rooms in a hall of residence with a central letter box are not. And between the two extremes there are many flats & houses internally subdivided and all manner of other arrangements that may not be on the election services database of homes and where getting the forms to individual units is difficult.

Some universities and landlords automatically register all their tenants. Others don't, citing such "problems" as the Data Protection Act (even though it doesn't stop counterparts). The result is that many people slip through the net completely. An individual unit in a dwelling of multiple occupancy can also have the address in many different formats, which only adds to the problem when people try to register. (TV Licensing seem have long had similar problems and there are many cases of students getting licences for their rooms only to then receive threatening letters from an incompetent agency that hasn't checked the variants.)

Those are the problems but is there an obvious solution that can solve them without at the same time making it exceptionally difficult to vote. Some form of individual registration is clearly desirable but it will do no-one any good if vast swathes of the population are not on the election register because the process to get on it is too difficult - does anyone seriously think requiring all people to queue up at a town hall during working hours with a passport and three separate utility bills, all personally addressed, is going to ensure everyone is on the register?

(Have a read of Antony Green's Election Blog: NSW Moves to Automatic Electoral Enrolment for a description of two very different systems of registration operated in New South Wales - automatic registration based on existing data for the state register, manual registration with a witnessed form known as the "purple people eater" and identification for the federal register. One version seems dangerously close to the super databases that no-one in the UK likes, the other seems excessively complicated.)

There is much talk of moving to individual registration but it needs to be extremely easy for people to find out how to do it and access the forms. And I wonder how it will solve the problem of people not having much proof of their current address (for example if utilities are included in the rent). Done right it could work well, but done wrong and it could make it very difficult for the ordinary citizen to exercise their democratic rights through no fault of their own.

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