Millions will be missing from electoral register in event of snap election

By agency reporter
September 28, 2019

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has called for a voter ‘registration revolution’ following revelations that over 9 million people in Great Britain are potentially missing from the electoral roll.

New figures from the Electoral Commission show 17 per cent of eligible voters in Great Britain are not registered at their current address, representing as many as 9.4 million people, thus leaving millions at risk of being unable to vote in a snap election. “This is no basis for fair elections and represents a hidden crisis”, the ERS says.

Eleven per cent of register entries also have ‘major errors’, affecting up to 5.6 million people, with another nine per cent having ‘minor errors’. That means one in five entries are wrong in some way.

The problem is especially bad for a General Election: Parliamentary registers were only 85 per cent complete (i.e. 15 per cent of eligible people are missing) and 89 per cent accurate in the Electoral Commission’s 2018 report. 

While there have not been changes to the completeness of the register since the December 2015 study, the accuracy has decreased from 91 per cent in 2015 to 89 per cent in December 2018, according to the Electoral Commission (EC).

There are stark differences in registration levels, with younger people and renters missing from the register in far greater numbers than older, white and owner-households.

As the EC note: “The study found that the main drivers of lower completeness are being younger, recent home movement and whether someone rents their home from a private landlord. These drivers of lower registration are in line with our findings in previous accuracy and completeness studies. Other factors associated with lower rates of registration include ethnicity, nationality and attitudes towards registration and voting. Private renters remain the least likely to have up to date register entries (58 per cent) compared to people who own their houses outright (91 per cent). Registration levels are also low among young people aged 18-34, with only 71 per cent correctly registered, compared to 94 per cent for people aged 65 and over.”

White people are most likely to be on the register at 84 per cent – compared to those from ‘other’ ethnic backgrounds with nearly 40 per cent missing from the register (just 62 per cent are registered to vote). Those from Asian and Black ethnic backgrounds each have a similar level of completeness (76 per cent and 75 per cent respectively) to those who are white, while completeness stands at 69 per cent among those from mixed backgrounds.”

There is a ‘ticking time bomb’ according to the ERS, with the number of young people who will soon be able to vote – those who are currently 16 and 17 years olds – in freefall: “The number of attainers has fallen significantly over the last few years.”

The EC adds “We have previously recommended that the registration of attainers presents an opportunity for the development of a more automatic approach to registration, for example, at the point when individuals receive their National Insurance number (NINo).” The ERS back this call.

The reduction in the number of attainers represents a ticking time bomb for political engagement – if people are not on the register by the time they are able to vote this represents another barrier to taking part in elections.

There are also differences by socio-economic group: registration completeness levels are highest for AB (86 per cent), lowest for C2DE (80 per cent) people. “Since 2015 there has been a decline in the level of completeness among those in C2 households (from 86 per cent)”, the EC notes.

The organisation warns that: “Levels of completeness declined more dramatically after 2001, falling to 85 per cent in 2011. This decline has been associated with population change, population mobility due to changing housing circumstances, a decrease in public engagement with electoral democracy and changing registration practices combined with declining form response rate in the early 2000s.”

Unlike in many European countries, people have to opt in to their right to vote in the UK. However, there is no way for people to check online if they are already on the register, or to automatically enrol.

The Electoral Reform Society is calling for the urgent introduction of ‘motor voting’, where people can opt in whenever they engage with government bodies to be on the register. DVLA, welfare and NHS records are often more accurate than local registration figures, the Electoral Commission has noted. This must be a first step towards ‘automatic’ registration, the ERS says.

The EC point out that moves to automatic or more automated registration “are feasible from a technical and operational perspective and could be implemented without radically altering the structure of the electoral registration system in the UK.” 

The ERS wants to see reforms to ensure as many people are signed up to vote as possible:

  • Making registration more automatic such as through ‘motor-voter’ registration, where citizens can register to vote whenever they are in contact with government – from getting a driving license to sorting out their benefits or pension
  • Trialling same-day registration so you can sign up on election day. After all, the heat of an election campaign is when people get most interested in politics.
  • An online service to find out if you are registered
  • Drawing boundaries on the basis of the total population of eligible voters rather than just on those who are already signed up

Dr Jess Garland, Director of Research at the Electoral Reform Society, said: “These figures should sound the alarm for anyone who cares about democracy. That more than 9 million people are not correctly registered is a major barrier to political equality and democratic engagement. It means any snap election will almost certainly be on the basis of an incomplete franchise, with millions missing.

“You shouldn’t have to opt in to your right to vote. As the EC note, we need to move towards automatic registration now, starting with being able to check you are registered online, and being able to register whenever you engage with government bodies or services. We know this works from other countries.

“There is now widespread consensus on this – it just needs to be done. Rather than putting up more barriers through mandatory voter ID, it’s clear we need to get people on the register so they are not left voiceless.

“The gaps in registration are creating inequalities in our elections, with young people and renters particularly affected.

“No company accounts with this many errors would pass audit. Our democracy is far more important than that. The government must listen to the Electoral Commission and the ERS’ calls to bring in the missing millions and ensure the next election, indeed all elections, are not missing out huge swathes of our country.”

* Read the Electoral Commission's report here

* Electoral Reform Society https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

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