Young voters are being disenfranchised

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30 June 2016

voter reg Siobhain spoke in favour of electoral reform in parliament to ensure that young people are able to access their democratic right to vote. 

1.4 million people eligible to vote have dropped off the electoral register since the Conservative government introduced Individual Electoral Registration, since December 2013. Since only 1.3 million votes decided last week's EU referendum result, Siobhain argued that there are so many eligible voters that could have decided the result. 

She called on the government to address the fact that young people, and those from ethnic minorities, are being denied their democratic and civic right to excercise their vote. 

Siobhain has worked with the organisation Bite The Ballot to highlight this issue, and presented a bill to Parliament earlier this year, calling on a new system of Automatic Voter Registration. You can read about Siobhain's proposed Bill here

You can watch and read Siobhain's speech below. 

I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this important debate. I apologise to you, Mr Howarth, and to other Members in the Chamber for having to leave early to get to a constituency event, but I wanted to make a contribution to this debate.

It is our job in this House to ensure that the citizens we represent can truly exercise their democratic rights, but British citizens in this country are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process. The problem of electoral registration is less getting people to sign up to individual elections and more maintaining their registration. I have spoken in the House before about the 100,000 Londoners who disappeared off the electoral register just months before the mayoral election. Boroughs with the biggest falls included Redbridge, which witnessed a staggering 9% drop; Kensington and Chelsea, with an 8% drop; and Hackney, which recorded a 7% drop.

The national picture is just as stark. The parliamentary register that was used in the EU referendum has seen the loss of 1.4 million names since December 2013. To put that figure into context, just 1.3 million more voters voted for Brexit than remain. In other words, those who fell off the register in the past two and a half years could have swayed the decision on the EU referendum.

There is a stark variance in who is signed up on our register. Pensioners in the shires who own their own home have a 90% chance of being on the electoral register, but a young man from an ethnic minority background in private rented accommodation in a city has a less than 10% chance of being on the register. 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. Liverpool has seen a drop in its electoral register of 14,000. Birmingham has seen a drop of 17,000, and the drop in the London Borough of Lewisham was 6,000. Those are all areas that have had 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.

Let us look at the outcome of the EU referendum. We know that young people overwhelmingly voted to remain. Remain voters made up 73% of 18 to 24-year-old ?voters and 62% of 25 to 34-year-old voters. It is clear that in areas with a high proportion of younger residents, turnout tended to be lower. We do not have any cast-iron figures, but we know that turnout among the youngest voters was around 40%. Among the over-65s, turnout was well over 80%. That all amounts to the effective disfranchisement of that younger group of voters. If the Government are serious about combating social exclusion, they urgently need to review that dire situation.

Being on the electoral register is the closest thing to having a civic contract. If someone is not on it, they cannot participate in the democratic process. Automatic electoral registration provides the opportunity to both reduce costs and improve administration, cutting down on bureaucracy and enabling everyone to exercise their right to enfranchisement. It is simple 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 together.

Automatic electoral registration proposes to make the system truly convenient for the citizen by integrating both national and local data sets, meaning that an individual’s address details would be automatically updated according to trusted data sets. The trusted data sets would collate information at each point that a citizen interacts with the state, whether that is when they pay a tax, receive a benefit, use the NHS, claim a pension or apply for a driving licence. The walls between those data sets used to be sacrosanct, but they are falling away more and more as the Government emphasise security and anti-fraud measures.

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 3.5 million and has 95% accuracy in its registration process. It does that 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 has already submitted to the Cabinet Office its plans to pioneer the system of automatic electoral registration. It also has proposals for a pilot scheme. I sincerely hope that the Government support the plans and will introduce the primary legislation on data sharing necessary to ensure that the pilot can go ahead.

Voter registration should not be the responsibility of charities or NGOs, such as Bite the Ballot, despite their excellent work. It should be down to the state to do all it can and to ensure that everyone, especially the most marginalised, can access their democratic rights. The issue should be non-partisan. It is in all our interests to get more people signed up. Then we can all get on with our job, as representatives of political parties, to enthuse voters and to persuade them that we are worthy of their vote.