Today is national voter registration day. It is an opportunity for all of us to make sure friends, neighbours and colleagues are all signed up to vote and have their voice heard.
The electoral register is at the heart of our democracy. It is the mechanism by which we enable people to vote, but it is also the basis for constituency boundaries and jury selection. It should, therefore, be representative of the public.
Yet 7.5 million eligible voters are not on the register. This means they cannot vote and that their views and opinions can be easily discarded by politicians. The situation is getting even worse. New figures show that the register has declined by a further one million over the past 12 months, as the government has rushed the introduction of individual electoral registration.
The missing millions are disproportionately young. Previously, only 56 per cent of young people were registered to vote, compared with over 90 per cent of those aged above 65. This is likely to get worse as young people seem to be dropping off the register at a faster rate, due to the introduction of the new system. For example, in 2013 there were 2,300 attainers, i.e. 17 and 18 year olds, on the register in Liverpool but the drop off over the last year has seen this fall to just 76.
It’s down to all of us to ensure millions more do not fall off the register. Local councils should be building a local media strategy to complement the Electoral Commission’s national media campaign. Now online registration is available, councils can utilise their websites, social media, press releases, community radio, newsletters and posters to highlight the need to register individually. Local councils can also data-match locally. Lambeth have managed to achieve a 95 per cent registration rate this way. Like Camden, they have used data from records of council tax, housing tenancy, housing leaseholders and benefits for cross-referencing to ensure registration levels remain high.
Although registration is the legal responsibility of local authorities, there is more we can all do. Bite the Ballot are a fantastic campaigning organisation that put on workshops in schools and colleges to encourage registration. Apart from schools, registration can be driven by other civic organisations: a poster in the local pub, church or gym. We can contact letting agents, and ask them to add a registration form with every new tenant pack to reach private renters who are so disproportionately under-registered. For those in university towns, we can mimic the work Paul Blomfield MP has done in Sheffield to liaise directly with the university administration to ensure students are registered automatically.
In a debate in the House of Commons this week, Sadiq Khan and I pressed the government to take action now to boost the register in time for the general election. We had two very modest requests. Firstly, we asked them to legislate for the schools’ initiative that sees electoral registration officers visit schools and colleges in their area to encourage young people to register to vote. In Northern Ireland, when individual electoral registration was introduced, the numbers of young people registered to vote plummeted, falling from 10,000 to just 244. After the schools’ initiative was introduced, the number of attainers registered went up dramatically, to an even higher level than under the old system. This government declined to take up the policy.
Secondly, we asked the government to give powers to live-in institutions, like student halls and care homes, to register en bloc. This would stop a drop off in communal living arrangements, where there is a high level of transience. Ministers refused to adopt this measure also.
There are 13 weeks until the general election. National voter registration day is an opportunity for us all to shout loudly about the importance of registering to vote. Even if the government are dragging their feet, our work must continue to ensure everyone is on the register and that their voice is heard.
Stephen Twigg MP is shadow minister for constitutional reform
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