Electoral registration is too important to be a lifestyle choice

by Wayne David

It has been described as the biggest change in our voting system since the introduction of the universal suffrage in 1928. So far, however, it has failed to appear on hardly anyone’s political radar. This needs to change because if the government are able to get away with what they are proposing, it will have a hugely negative impact on British politics, with millions of people being unable to vote.

In the last parliament, the Labour government secured cross-party agreement for the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER). With the support of the independent electoral commission, the Labour government brought forward reasonable measures to modernise electoral registration and reduce the possibility of electoral fraud. The Tory-led government has taken these proposals, but then infused them with its own distinctive venom. The result is a set of proposals which profoundly undermine the nature of the country’s democratic process.

Under the government’s white paper and draft bill, which are to be discussed in the Commons today during a debate called for by Labour, it is proposed that the move towards IER should happen quickly. The result will be electoral confusion as the introduction of IER will coincide with both the general election and the next parliamentary constituencies boundary review. Right from the start, there will be a question mark over the new boundaries, as no sooner will the boundaries have been established, then they will be reviewed on the basis of a new and potentially very different electoral register.

The government also proposes that the future role of the electoral commission should be reduced, the role of electoral registration officers (EROs) is made unclear and the important annual electoral canvass for 2014 will be abandoned. Critically, the government proposes that in future being on the electoral register will become optional.

This is central to the government’s thinking. According to ministers, electoral registration will, in the words of the white paper, become “a matter of choice for the individual”. Gone will be the possibility of a fine of £1,000 for non-co-operation with an ERO; instead individuals will be invited to join the electoral register if they are so inclined. In other words, if the government get their own way, electoral registration will no longer be a civic duty.

Last week, Nick Clegg made a small concession by hinting that the government may drop the permanent opt-out option, but the central thrust of the government’s plans will remain unchanged.

Taken as a whole, the government’s proposals are likely to see a sharp reduction in the number of people registered to vote. According to the electoral commission there is likely to be a reduction from the current 90% completeness to around 60%. Those likely to be disenfranchised are the young, black and ethnic minorities, disabled people and those in social housing and private rented accommodation.

Unless these proposals are changed, it is likely that Britain will become like the United States, where millions of black and poor people are permanently disenfranchised. And, of course, if people are excluded from the electoral register in the UK it has implications for jury service and individuals’ credit rating.

Some have suggested that the government is seeking to gain electoral advantage by this move. This may be the case. Given that the act, which is introducing new boundaries will hit the Labour party more than any other party, the government certainly has form. And it is nothing short of outrageous that the government has broken with convention and is seeking to introduce major constitutional change on a partisan basis.

But this goes beyond partisanship and goes right to the heart of our democratic system. Our democracy is based on a simple premise: that every citizen should have a vote. If the government undermines people’s ability to be on the electoral register they are denying people the choice of whether to exercise their right to vote. This must mean that they are guilty of wilfully seeking to undermine the democratic process.

To register to vote is surely a civic duty, not a lifestyle choice. I hope that the government will recognise their folly, take note of the hundreds of objections submitted to their white paper consultation and abandon their poorly thought-out plans. Instead, they should seek to establish a consensus with all political parties and come forward with a bill which will reinforce and not undermine our precious democracy.

Wayne David is Labour MP for Caerphilly and shadow minister for political and constitutional reform.

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13 Responses to “Electoral registration is too important to be a lifestyle choice”

  1. Nick says:

    Why vote when you ignore manifesto promises, and omit what you are going to do from manifestos where you have no mandate?

    What about a Labour voter in Westminster? Their vote is worthless, because its not a marginal constituency?

    What about how the electorate gets rid of an MP who is a fraudster? They have to wait upto 5 years, and then vote in a way that is against their personal interest to get rid of the criminal.

  2. Forlornehope says:

    So the only way you can get people to register, let alone vote for you, is to threaten them with a £1000 fine. That’s a pretty clear admission of your utter failure as a politician to support their interests and win their support. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  3. Harry Barnes says:

    The issue is huge. But we also need to recognise the flaws in the estabished electoral registration system. The Electoral Commission found that three and a half million people were missing from registers at the last election. These were concentrated amongst the poor, ethnic minorities, the young, and the mobile and rootless. We need a pro-active electoral registration system which seeks out people to get them registered. We are losing the universal franschise which democrats pride themselves upon. There are also failings over who we allow to have the vote. It should be open to all residents in a nation and not confined to British Citizens and those from the Commonwealth and Ireland. The only restrictions on enfranchisement should be an age cut-off and those who can’t excercise the right to vote due to really serious mental impairment. To help a pro-active registratiion system, votes should start at 16. This would enable initial registration to start with attainers at school. They could then be tracked to ensure they remained on registers.

    The first need is the one Wayne David stresses. But a campaign to prevent “lifesytle choices”, could be used as a stepping stone to full enfranchisement. We need a campaign to show the that the work of the Chartists and the Suffragettes has been seriously undermined. I used to push the matter via Private Members Biils and a Group called “Full Franchise”. Advances in technology in recent years, make the methods I pressed for even easier to employ.

  4. DevonChap says:

    You have still failed to say how the government propse to deny the vote to those people who will fail to register. To deny the vote requires active or passive prevention which can’t be said to be happening.

    I haven’t seen any figures for how many people have been fined for not registering on the electoral role. If it is close to zero it suggestes that the current law is a broken reed and it is hard to see why the removal of the legal requirement to register will case the fall, rather than individual registration iteslef which as you say Labour agrees with.

  5. theProle says:

    Sorry, but this is rubbish.

    Currently I am eligible to vote. In practice I can vote or not vote as I see fit.

    If for whatever reason I decided I don’t want to vote (maybe I live in the very safe seat of Sir Tufton Buffoon, and I’ve more odds of winning the lottery than my vote influencing the outcome in any way, maybe I think all politicians are liars and thieves anyway, so one lot are much the same as any other lot, maybe I don’t know anything about politics so don’t feel I can make a wise choice of what to do with my vote etc etc – it really doesn’t matter why), and if I come to this conclusion ages before a GE, then why shouldn’t I save everyone all the bother of sending me polling cards I won’t use etc etc when hell is going to freeze over before I actually turn up at a polling station.

    Last time I looked, it was the case that the Tories needed about 8% more vote share than Labour to get a majority, so I think if the Tories are correcting this it can hardly be called gerrymandering – surely that has already occurred in the other direction, and is now being fixed.

    (If anyone is curious I’ve not got masses of time for Fptp, nor yet for the Tory party, but reading rubbish like this piece really annoys me…

  6. theProle says:

    Oh, and if anyone is wondering, I voted in my (safe seat) at the last GE, for a minor party with which I don’t particularly agree, in order to try to help save their deposit. IMHO deposits are very unfair on minor partys which often lose lots of them in their struggle to become recognised as serious parties, and my seat would be perfectly safe for the proverbial rosette wearing pig.

  7. swatantra says:

    One of these days we might actually get an educated electorate that actually does something for itself rather than having things done for it. Registration is a relatively simple procedure, you sign the form and return it in a SAE; or if you are too lazy you can text or phone in your registration. If you’re smart enough to do that, then you’re smart enough to vote.

  8. Bryn says:

    Wayne is right, this is a typical Tory measure that impacts most heavily on the less well off sections of society, it must be opposed by all fair-minded political parties, but perhaps more importantly the mass media must be alerted to this underhand measure, and its truly partisan nature exposed for all to see.
    Democracy will be reduced if it reached the statute book, we should launch a campaign in all the modern outlets of new technology that are available to highlight its dangers to democracy.

  9. James says:

    If the changes to the electoral system as described above are pushed through then this could be the most challlenging obstacle the Labour Party faces in securing government. Wayne David draws upon the electoral commission who state there would likely to be a reduction from the current 90% of people on the register to around 60%. Leaving aside socio economic or racial identity, it can not be right that we run the risk of having to 40% of people off the register. When you however begin to think about what groups will be more greatly affected you may realise why this government are planning on changing the why people register to vote.

    It is mentioned that those likely to be disenfranchised are the young, black and ethnic minorities, disabled people and those in social housing and private rented accommodation. As a Labour Party we have to be worried that the type of people that will drop off the register will be more sympatetic to us and we must challenge this. Any policy which brings down voter registration should be a grave concern for anybody in this party, but coupled with the likelihood that our supporters would be suffering disproportionately because of this flawed initative we must come out fighting. There is a very strong chance the proposals could create a democratic deficit in the UK and that is something which we should all be wary of.

  10. CFA says:

    After the Bill redrawing the boundaries, the Government certainly have form on this.

    It is no surprise that those likely to be fall off the register are from the poor urban communities that Labour represent. The Government’s plans could make it harder for Labour to gain power for generations to come.

    This issue needs to be higher upper the political agenda and Wayne David and his fellow Shadow Ministers need all our support in getting it there.

  11. cyfarthfa says:

    It’s difficult to understand Mr. theProles point of view. Is he a super-cynic or does he just feel sorry for Candidates who have a Snowball in Hell’s chance of winning. The weight of a majority simply indicates the strength of feeling in the Constituency. The fee is there to stop the Ballot Form from looking like my Wife’s Sainsbury bill and to keep the silliness out of real politics.The Tories have never shown great concern for the disenfranchised in Constituencies where their majority is guaranteed but they see an opportunity now get at the Labour vote. That’s all there is to it.

  12. Henrik says:

    Actually, if folk don’t value their franchise enough to stir themselves to register, balls to them. Participation in a democracy involves obligations as well as rights – and the requirement to fill out a form and pop it into the post in order to secure a vote doesn’t strike me as comparable to the struggle black folk had in 1950s Alabama to do likewise.

    As to this being a Tory move, of course it is. Labour did enough purely partisan stuff while the comrades were clinging to power – it is somewhat hypocritical to consider that electoral jiggery-pokery is somehow wholly virtuous if Labour does it and a major crime against civilisation if the other lot do.

  13. Harry Barnes says:

    Every effort should be made to get people onto electoral registers. This needs to go beyond, at best, a single communication being sent to a household. The homeless and those who are highly mobile in bed-sitter land hardly ever see registration forms. Advertising campaigns to get people to register are pathetic. Electoral Registration Officers need the authority to trace and track people, and then to canvass them to get them to registers. When people refuse to do this, there is then hard evidence to hand that they have consiously refused to register. They should then be prosecuted for failing to fulfil this basic civic duty. Not to go down the above road is to condone a current defacto voluntary electoral registration system. Without a full franchise, we get unfair electoral boundaries and when the results are announced we don’t even get an accurate figure as to how many abstained from voting. The Rolling Electoral Registration system can only come into its own when those moving into a fresh area are quickly approached to transfer their registration to the place they can conveniently exercise their vote.

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