The myth about 1 million people being wiped off electoral register: it’s not true

One thing I’m sure about about the 1 million figure is that stories about 1 million voters being lost / wiped out / obliterated / exterminated (pick your word of choice depending on editorial leanings and tabloid nature of publication) are false.

And the truth? Nobody knows.

Rather, the one million statistic is another of those cases that shows the stultifying conformity and me-too-ism of much of the media and politics, where everyone is confined to a tiny island of half-knowledge that gets transmuted into false claims without anyone venturing out more widely to discover the truth. Especially if it’s as deeply unfashionable a truth as ‘the state of our democracy isn’t quite so grim’.

Let’s start with where the 1 million figure came from. A survey of 373 local authorities by the Labour Party came up with a total reduction in the electoral register size across those of 950,845 electoral register entries.

Note that it’s 373 local authorities and a total of under 1 million. Because somewhere along the line some some people start quoting 307 authorities a 1,016,024 million fall. That’s done by excluding (for no justifiable reason I can find) 66 authorities, across whom the electoral register entry total rose over the last year rather than fell. It’s an odd exclusion to make and one that should give pause for thought about how much anyone quoting the figure of over a million really knows about where it has come from.

But more substantively, what is the less-than-but-sometimes-called-more-than million figure really of? It’s not of electors, voters or people – the terms usually used to describe it. It’s of entries on the electoral register.

Why does this matter? In part, because the electoral register has always included people who have died, moved etc. who were left on the register. How much of the fall is due to such entries being cleaned up better under the new system?

I’ve read reams of stories about the not-really-one-million figure and yet to find an estimate even though the new system of individual electoral registration should, in theory, work out much better in this regard. Rather people just cite the big number, slip into calling it people rather than possibly duff entries, and scream ‘arrrrgh!’

Even people you would hope would know better, such as political reform experts and academics (on, ahem, a site which boasts in its strapline of “academic rigour”).

And then there’s the question of how many of these removed entries are really just the stripping out of duplicates, which I will return to momentarily.

But, first, it is fair to say that there are some geographically concentrated large falls in electoral register totals which are far bigger than can be reasonably explained by vigorous register cleaning. Moreover, with such areas coinciding* with large student populations there’s an obvious conclusion to draw. Under the old electoral register system, many students were automatically registered by their university. Now they’re not and they have to register individually.

So are students falling off the register in large numbers?

Well, again there’s a catch. Certainly the 8.9% fall in the size of the electoral register in Cardiff, to take one example, looks like it’s a case of students falling off the register. But students have always been entitled to register twice: once at their home (parents) address and once at their university address (which is often, though of course not always, in a different council area). They could register twice but only vote once in a general election.

So if they’ve not (yet) got on the electoral register at their university address, they could still be on the register at their home address – and still entitled to vote in the general election as a result.**

What’s more, the move to individual electoral registration requires people new at an address to go through the new system but also has involved a transition arrangement that – to simplify – means people staying at the same address were automatically copied over from old register to new register in large numbers. So if a student had been registered by their parents under the old system, then went to university, it’s quite plausible that they are still on the register courtesy of their home address even though they’ve failed to register at their new address. Net result: a drop in the total number of electoral register entries but not in the number of people who are registered to vote.

That’s the theory What’s the evidence? How many students are in this situation? Enough to make the not-really-one-million figure significantly smaller? There’s quite a few steps in my chain of causation above and basically no-one has up-to-date figures for any of it.** So we’re all stuck in ignorance.

Save for one clue that the final figures will look rather different anyway: the record numbers of people registering online in just one day recently: 81,015. And that was by 4pm, not midnight.****

So I’ll hang on for the moment to what we know for sure: no-one knows how many people (not entries – people) have come off the electoral register or whether the current rate of adding them back on means the net result by polling day will mean more, the same, or fewer people registered.

Oh, and not only headline I’ve seen so far gets close to even give a fair hint that this is the situation.

UPDATE: The myth has stayed a myth even after the release of “new” data from the Electoral Commission and in fact the genuinely new data from Scotland shows the number of entries on the electoral register going up, not down.


* Mostly, probably etc. Although the association between the two is often drawn, and looks right to me too, here again proper analysis of the statistics and demographic data is lacking.

** If a student is registered in two different council areas for their home and university address they can vote for both councils. So if there has been a reduction in such double-registration there has been a reduction in the ability of students to vote twice in local elections. That’s far from irrelevant, but ‘students losing their second vote in council elections’ is not in the same league as ‘students drop off the register’. 

*** Even the Electoral Commission’s recently publicised figures that around 30% of young people are not registered don’t help us as although newly (re)publicised, they date from before the move to the new register.

**** UPDATE: 166,140 by the end of the day.

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