Welcome to Britain 2024 – we’re worse than Georgia when it comes to voter suppression

by Paul Wheeler

2024 is the year of elections including amongst others the UK and US.

For decades political pundits here have been able to point an accusing figure to the Southern States of the US when it comes to the dark arts of voter suppression. Well thanks to the current Government Britain has lost the moral high ground. The credentials required to vote in person here are more restrictive here than in Georgia. Student ID is a permissible form of ID in Georgia a form of ID specifically excluded in this country.

The case for voter ID in Britain was always thin but the way that it has been implemented has descended into embarrassment. The comparison with other European countries who request voter ID ignores the simple fact that they nearly all have universal Identity Cards used in everyday life.

Perhaps most important it has diverted political time and energy which would have been better focused on improving the process of voter registration. The electoral register in Britain has been part of the hidden wiring of British democracy since the introduction of universal suffrage in the early twentieth century. However, in the last decade we have seen a slow-motion collapse in the accuracy and scope of the electoral register.

A major part of the problem is that we have expected cash strapped councils to implement huge changes to the process of voting and registration. If ever the principle of unintended consequences was relevant in public life it would apply to the introduction of Individual Voting Registration (IVR) in the UK.

Introduced in 2009 in the last days of the last Labour Government it was a well-intentioned attempt to move away from allowing a ‘Head of Household’ (usually assumed to be a male) to complete the registration of all members of the family/household. and instead put the responsibility on every individual to complete the registration form themselves – a huge change in terms of bureaucracy and form filling

Sadly, it didn’t anticipate that it would be implemented under a Coalition Government who implemented a savage reduction in public expenditure particularly amongst the 400 councils responsible for voter registration.

For one group of voters the results of the change to individual voting was catastrophic – ‘attainers’ are 16/17 year olds included on the register to anticipate their eligibility to vote at 18. In the past a Head of Household was expected to include them. Now the responsibility was their own. It became increasingly apparent over the years that 16/17 year olds have other priorities than voter registration.

Research recently undertaken by the House of Commons Library (February 2023) revealed the extent of the ‘attainer exclusion’. Of the 8000 16/17 year olds in Coventry just 1700 – barely 20% were included on the electoral register. Coventry is unlikely to be exceptional in that respect.

Whilst voting is not compulsory in Britain interestingly a request to be included on the electoral register is enforceable by a fine if the individual fails to respond. So, if the process of registering to vote is a legal requirement how many fines have been issued by local authorities for failing to respond? In the case of Coventry in the last five years precisely   – none.    Again, I suspect Coventry is unlikely to be exceptional in its approach to enforcing the civic duty to register to vote.

The consequences for the next General Election are evident. The Electoral Commission in evidence to the DLUHC Select Committee in December 2023 estimated that upwards of eight million eligible voters are missing from the current electoral register of 48 million for the UK. Needless to say, some groups of voters are more likely to be missing from the electoral register than others. The implications of this have been evident for some time.

Urban areas with high percentages of young people living in insecure private rented properties have much lower rates of accurate voter registration than suburban and shire areas. It was estimated that an owner occupied pensioner household living in shire England   have a 90% chance of being included on the voter register compared to the 10% chance of a young black male living in private rented accommodation in a city.

So, without much public debate the process of voter registration has moved from a civic duty to an entirely voluntary activity. To be fair the Government and political parties have responded to this slow puncture of the franchise by promoting voter registration drives particularly in the run up to General Elections with an emphasis on registering on line. But it’s a flash flood approach to voter registration which means that most of the time the incentive to register is missing and threatens to overwhelm hard pressed Electoral Services Offices in many councils during the next General Election. Sadly, the precedent already exists.

And such an approach fails to take into account that the electoral register serves a range of purposes. Our legal system relies on representative juries drawn from the electoral register. If significant elements of the population eligible for jury service, especially the young and mobile, are missing from the voting register than justice is flawed. When I helped initiate a High Court challenge by the Labour Party in 1992 against the attempts of the then Conservative controlled councils of Brent and Milton Keynes in removing huge numbers of eligible voters from their electoral registers it was the impact of their removal from potential Jury service that most concerned Lord Justice Potts. His adverse judgement against both councils curtailed any similar action by other Tory councils.

And the failing register has other severe implications for the health of our democracy.  The review of Parliamentary constituencies and local council wards by Boundary Commissions is based on a snap shot of the electoral register in a particular year. The assumption is that the voting registers are an accurate reflection of the eligible voting population. Well in a world where upwards of 8 million eligible voters are missing from the electoral registers that’s no longer the case. And as Labour List has been indicating for some time the failure of the current electoral register to accurately reflect the eligible population in urban areas has hugely adverse consequences for the Labour Party.

The move towards Individual Voting Registration should have provided the opportunity to move from 19th century concepts of property-based voting rights and patriarchal heads of households to a modern data driven form of voter registration that reflects the increasingly mobile lifestyles of the UK population. It didn’t happen.

As an example of what is possible the State of Victoria in Australia has a population of 3.5 million and achieves a 95`% accuracy in voter registration through a rigorous cross-checking of population data bases with a complement of just 5 staff. They work on the principle that once on the electoral register, death is the only reason not to be listed (and yes they do cross-reference with the register of deaths)

With a General Election imminent we are unlikely to see major improvements to the failing system of voter registration (although Labour and other parties should be supporting the recommendations of the Electoral Commission to widen the number of identification cards that can be used for Voter ID at the next General Election).

And understandably a future Labour Government will have a huge pressure of priorities. However, if I was one of the many new MPs in the next Parliament I would be campaigning for an All Party Speakers Conference (qv). There is a good precedent in that the first Speakers Conference in 1916 was established to examine extensions to the then very limited franchise. One hundred years on its time to repair the severe damage done to our electoral process since 2010.

Paul Wheeler was the Elections Co-ordinator for the Labour Party from 1992-96. He comments on politics at @paulw56

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