We urgently need a new electoral registration process

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03 February 2016

Automatic Voter Reg Siobhain has called for Automatic Voter Registration, which would simplify the process of electoral registration, ensuring voters' details would be updated automatically, and with minimum inconvenience.

The government's policy of Individual Electoral Registration has caused over 800,000 people to drop of the electoral register nationwide, and up to 13% in some cities. 

In her speech, presenting her 'Ten Minute Rule' Bill, she argued that the UK's democratic processes were being undermined, as thousands of those eligible to vote are now not able to do so. Siobhain highlighted the fact that marginalised groups are much more likely to be disenfranchised, specifically those from ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, and those from poorer areas. 

You can download Siobhain's proposed Bill here


You can watch the speech online here. 

You can read Siobhain's article for Politics Home on the subject here.


'Thank you Mr Speaker.

As I am sure all Honourable Members will agree, it is our job in this House, to make sure that the citizens we represent can truly exercise their democratic rights.

But as we speak, British citizens in this country are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process. The problem is less getting people to sign up, and more maintaining people’s registration.

The people who are being excluded from the process are exactly the people we need to be prioritising.

According to recent trends, we are witnessing further marginalisation of already marginalised groups, including those from poorer backgrounds, those who are disabled, and those from ethnic minorities.

Research published just yesterday showed that pensioners in the shires who own their own home have a 90% chance of being on the electoral register. But at the same time, a young man from an ethnic minority background in private rented accommodation in a city has less than a 10% chance of being registered.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has launched an important drive against ‘overt, unconscious or institutional’ racial discrimination, in university admissions, the justice system and the police. But the fact that people from ethnic minorities are far less likely to be registered to exercise their democratic rights undermines the government’s commitment.

When it comes to electoral registration, the picture is bleak across the country. I celebrate the work of my Honourable Friend, the Member for Ashfield, for raising the issue of voters dropping off the register, since the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration, or IER for short.

Since its introduction, a staggering 800,000 people have dropped off the register - that’s 1.8% nationwide. To put these figures into context, Liverpool has seen a drop in its eligible register of 14,000, Birmingham 17,000 and Lewisham 6,000 - and these are all cities which have seen an increase in population. The situation is even worse in areas where the population is transient, such as university towns. Canterbury has seen a huge 13% drop in those registered to vote. Cambridge has seen a drop of 11%, meaning its electorate is now smaller than it was in 2011.

These drops are the result of the absurdities of the current system. Imagine if, every time you started a new job, you needed to apply for a new National Insurance number, and needed to prove to HMRC again and again that you were eligible to pay tax and NI. The process would be cumbersome, costly and repetitive – just as the process of IER is.

In sum, these developments mean that British citizens, particularly those who are at the side-lines, are being disenfranchised and denied their democratic rights. This also means that as the pool of potential voters decreases, our political status quo becomes more limited. If the government is serious about combatting social exclusion it urgently needs to review this dire situation. Disenfranchisement is marginalising the already marginalised.

Being on the electoral register is the closest thing to having a civic contract. But if you’re not on the register, you won’t have access to mainstream loans, and you might not be able to get a mortgage either. You also can’t serve on a jury and be part of our justice process. Most fundamentally of all, if you’re not on the electoral register, you can’t participate in the democratic process.

Our present system of electoral registration is fundamentally flawed. Nor is it cheap, with IER costing at least about £108m to roll out. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Automatic Electoral Registration provides the opportunity to reduce costs and improve administration, cutting down on bureaucracy and enabling everyone to access their right to enfranchisement.

This Bill is a statement of common sense, proposing a cheaper, simpler and more effective model. It places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral database is full and complete. It imposes a duty on the government and public bodies to work better together. It proposes to make the system truly convenient for the citizen by integrating national and local datasets. This will mean that an individual’s address details would be automatically updated according to trusted datasets. The trusted datasets would collate information at each point that a citizen interacts with the state – whether it’s when they pay a tax, receive a benefit, use the NHS or claim a pension.

The walls between these datasets used to be sacrosanct. But they are falling away more and more, as the government prioritises security and anti-fraud measures. For instance, the DWP already uses the electoral register to find households claiming the 25% single-person’s Council Tax discount, but have more than one voter registered there. This demonstrates the huge potential when government departments and public bodies communicate with one another.

These reforms would vastly improve registration, and have been tested elsewhere. A very similar model operates in Australia, with huge success. For instance, the state of Victoria has a population of 3.5m people, and has a 95% accuracy in its registration process. It does this at extremely low cost, employing just five members of staff who maintain the rolling register.

Rolling out this reform in the UK is timely for so many reasons. Greater Manchester will submit to the Cabinet Office next week its plans to pioneer this system of Automatic Electoral Registration, and its proposals for a pilot scheme. I sincerely hope that the government will support these plans, and will introduce the primary legislation around data sharing that is needed to ensure this pilot can go ahead.

And I am sure Honourable Members will be aware that this week is Bite the Ballot’s ‘National Voter Registration Drive’. Last year’s drive saw almost half a million people register to vote, making it the most successful voter registration campaign ever. I hope the results this week will match that achievement. But, in the long run, voter registration should not be the responsibility of charities or NGOs. It should be down to the state to do all it can and ensure everyone, especially those who are most marginalised, can access their democratic rights.

I hope Honourable Members will consider this a non-partisan issue, and will agree with me that it’s in all our interests to get more people signed up. And then we can all get on with our job, as representatives of political parties, to try and persuade and enthuse voters that we are worthy of their vote.

At a time when social exclusion is getting worse, voter turnout is declining and IER has caused registration to deplete, Automatic Voter Registration has never been more important. Voting is the backbone of this House, and it’s one of the most important interactions between the citizen and the democratic state. It is a fundamental symbol of engagement. It signifies that you are not on the margins of society, but are part of the majority.

We can no longer accept a system that excludes and marginalises voters, not least because these are exactly the groups we need to engage with to end social exclusion. I don’t think it’s controversial to argue that voting is not just for the elite; it is something we should all be able to access. That’s why, for the sake of our democracy and of social cohesion, I hope the government will be supporting my suggestions, and will make registering to vote more, not less, a way of life.

ENDS'


SPONSORS:
1. Siobhain McDonagh MP
2. Ian Austin MP
3. Dawn Butler MP
4. Rosie Cooper MP
5. Jim Dowd MP
6. Jim Fitzpatrick MP
7. George Howarth MP
8. Chris Leslie MP
9. Marie Rimmer MP
10. Joan Ryan MP
11. Virendra Sharma MP
12. Ruth Smeeth MP 


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