Individual Electoral Registration
Wed. January 18, 2012
I want to raise two specific concerns, the first of which is that although some of the changes are welcome, they are characteristic of a Government who are too frequently looking through the wrong end of the microscope and thus finding the wrong solutions to the wrong problems. The second concern is about making major changes to electoral registration while substantial changes are to take place as a result of boundary reorganisation. No part of the UK will be hit worse by this than my country, Wales.
There is surely consensus that the preferred outcome is that all adults who are entitled to vote should be registered. Everyone should be on the electoral roll and have the opportunity to cast their vote at elections. The principle of individual electoral registration is positive—that electors should take upon themselves the responsibility to register to vote in their own right rather than under the aegis of a household. All relevant people should be willing and able to register and should have the same opportunity to do so. However, there might be a disconnect between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome in that although relevant people may register, they might not all actually do so. The Minister said that the Government hoped to learn lessons from Northern Ireland, and I look forward to seeing some of the resulting changes in the Bill. However, I believe that when the changes were introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002—Mark Durkan might wish to correct me—there was a fall of 11% in registered electors, and it has taken more than 10 years to rebuild the figures.
According to the White Paper, an estimated 3.5 million people of voting age across England and Wales were not on the electoral roll at the most recent estimate. The Electoral Commission reported in December 2010 that 6 million people were not registered across the UK. It is unclear to me how IER, which creates a greater barrier to registration, will achieve a closer parity to ensure that as many people as possible are on the electoral roll.
If the White Paper is to be believed, then fear of electoral fraud is the major reason for a change to individual electoral registration and for this happening before the next Westminster election. The White Paper refers to the findings of an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe report regarding the recommendation of an identification requirement to safeguard against fraudulent registration. However, the OSCE was informed of that problem by representatives of political parties when they gave evidence, so this is a circular argument. We tell the OSCE there is a problem, it writes a report saying that we have identified a problem and then we use its report to justify action. That is not evidence-based decision making.
From the testimony provided in the White Paper, it seems that fear of fraud rather than actual fraud is the problem. The attitudinal survey quoted in the White Paper is evidence not that the current system is not working but merely that media stories have raised awareness of the possibility of fraud. Those are two very different things. Perhaps for my party more than anything else I am concerned that the proposals, which aim to tackle what appears to be limited electoral fraud, might lead to unintended consequences.
Electoral registration has greater relevance than ever following the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which the Minister drove through last year. The Act will create constituencies designed to have voter numbers within 5% of a UK constituency mean that is predicated upon the number of electors on the electoral roll rather than in the actual adult population. That is the key point. As we have consistently said in our criticisms, the formation of these new constituencies ignores community, historical and geographical links. We saw that last week in Wales, where some of the proposed constituencies are not very practical.
We are also worried by the size of some of the proposed mega-constituencies in Wales of more than 1,500 square miles, which is an incredible size. Apart from that, to be fair, the Boundary Commission for Wales has done a good job, especially in Carmarthenshire. My point, though, is that non-registration becomes crucial because not only are non-registered people disfranchised and unable to vote but their non-registration increases the actual population of the constituency. Full registration must therefore be the principal aim of any change in registration, and it is very unclear from the Government’s proposals to date how the changes will bring that about.
The same is true of suggestions that a voluntary registration scheme should be introduced. The Electoral Commission estimates that a voluntary registration scheme, as suggested in paragraph 74 of the White Paper, may see a significant drop in the number of relevant adults on the electoral register, from around 90% to as low as 65%. That would clearly not assist in full registration, and given the introduction of the new population link for constituency boundaries, the impact of the change would be significant and would require the electoral map to be wholly redrawn once again to reflect the changes and ignore those we might describe as the non-people, as well as potentially disfranchising more than a third of our adult population. As we already know, electoral participation is skewed towards particular parts of society and to lose the participation of those who are more transitory or migratory, and less interested in politics, would have a strong impact on our society and our politics.
I have been very good by butchering my speech to keep it within eight minutes. I conclude by noting that I hold deep reservations that the measures proposed in the White Paper will not assist in increasing the number of adults on the electoral register, and may have negative unintended consequences on voter registration and constituencies. Electoral registration is an issue that must have cross-party consensus and I hope that that can be achieved before any changes are introduced.
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