Being on the electoral register is a civic duty. In some ways, it’s the nearest thing Britain has to a social contract.
Nobody can make you vote, but if you’re on the register you belong to a democracy.
It’s the basis of our justice system. If you’re not on it, you can’t serve on a jury.
The police use it to locate suspects and their associates.
It’s what banks use to prevent fraud.
Councils use it to check people pay enough council tax, or are on the right benefits.
But from next year, the government will make it harder to sign up.
At a time when we’re rightly worried about social unrest and family breakdown, they are going to stop parents with a sense of social responsibility registering their teenage children to vote!
Instead, everyone will have to register individually, and teenagers who might never have realised they had a national insurance number will have to give it to the authorities or lose their franchise.
So-called ‘individual registration’ has already been introduced in Northern Ireland and, predictably, the register collapsed. Worse, according to the Electoral Commission, those most ‘adversely affected’ were disadvantaged groups: young people, ethnic minorities, or people on low incomes or in bad housing.
In other words, individual registration disengages the people we most need to engage with.
The Electoral Commission reckon that when it is rolled out across the rest of Britain, only 65 per cent of people will register to vote.
The coalition says it needs to do this to prevent election fraud. But according to its own research fraudulent registration is ‘rare’, and 20 times more people are satisfied with how we register to vote than are dissatisfied.
The problem isn’t fraudulent over-registration, it’s that millions don’t register at all.
And so I’ve proposed a new law, the electoral register (access to public services) bill, which is designed to boost registration among those most likely to be disengaged.
This new law will make it compulsory to be on the electoral register in order to access public services like social security benefits or tax credits, or even if you want a driving licence.
I don’t think it’s much of an imposition. After all, if you need to be on the electoral register to get a credit card, why not be on it if you want a driving licence?
If you don’t like living in a democracy, fine – just don’t expect all the good things we provide in return.
However, if you do want to be part of our amazing democracy, then sign up to the electoral register and when times are hard you can get housing benefit or tax credits.
You might have to do jury service, and the police might know where to find you if you do something wrong, but that’s a small price to pay.
There are some people who think this would be too authoritarian. But they should remember that, even now, if you don’t sign up you can be fined.
But why punish when you can reward?
The benefits of living in a democracy in return for signing up to democracy.
That’s not such a bad deal, is it?
I’m not forcing anyone to vote.
But I do think if we ask people to sign up to democracy to get the rewards of living in a democracy, who knows, we might even strengthen democracy!
And that, after all, is much better than allowing millions of poor, dispossessed people to lose their right to vote.
Siobhain McDonagh is MP for Mitcham and Morden. She tweets @SiobhainMP
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