Electoral register totals: the myth is still a myth even after the “new” figures

A quick update on my previous post about the myth that 1 million people have fallen off the electoral register, given that the Electoral Commission has published a report on the matter today.

As with previous data, today’s report is about the number of entries on the electoral register. That is not the same as the number of people, especially as – for example – students away at university can be registered twice. So switching from talking about total entries to total people as if they are one and the same continues to be as sloppy as it was before. (In its report, the Electoral Commission using “electorate” to mean “total number of entries on the electoral register” rather than “people”, by the way, as is clear from usage such as in paragraph 3.14. So watch out too for mistaken quotes about the “electorate” as if it means “people”.)

But more importantly, today’s report isn’t “new” data. It’s data as of 1 December. Therefore the point about the huge number of applications to join the electoral register since then is still important to factor in. Simply reporting a figure from December but then ignoring the additions since then is not in any way sensible – especially when the fall in entries that took place in December was under 1 million, but over 1.7 million new applications to join the register have happened since then.

That’s not a minor number to ignore, even allowing for the fact that some of the 1.7 million will turn out to be duplicate applications or, most likely more importantly, people moving and so not a net increase in the register as they’ll also come off somewhere else.

So what’s the net figure? No-one knows, not even the Electoral Commission in today’s report – though note that they gives a total number of new applications since 1 December as 2 million, which suggests that in addition to the very large number of applications going in through Gov.uk, there are also large number of applications going in direct to local councils via other means.

Yet even looking at just Gov.uk, another 43,400 applications to join the electoral register went in centrally just yesterday, and yesterday wasn’t a particularly busy day.

As before, there are large gaps in the data but what we do know makes it very clear that talking about a fall in the electoral register as if that’s what the evidence shows can only be done by ignoring much of the evidence.

All the more so if you’re talking about students because the Electoral Commission even included a special health warning in today’s report:

Work to encourage university students to register at their term time address, could only begin following the start of the university academic year in late September/early October 2014.

The December registers will therefore not reflect in full the outcomes of the work that has been undertaken to target these particular groups of electors.

The truth is that still, nobody really knows what’s happening, but with the number of new applications to be on the register so high every day it’s looking very likely that the register by May will be larger, not smaller, than the reference point being used of early 2014.

One other point is worth bearing in mind: the reasons the Electoral Commission gives for the fall in the number of electoral register entries between the 2013 electoral register canvass (published in early 2014) and 1 December 2014 is predominantly a transitory one: the absence of a full household canvass in 2014 as part of the transition arrangements. It’ll be back in 2015 and all future years (see p.6 and paragraph 3.17 of the report in particular).

So even if you think entries and people are the same, that older data is better than newer data and that all those daily piles of applications to join the register are going to cease tomorrow, it would still be deeply foolish to conclude that this data says something about the overall prospects of individual electoral registration.

By the way, aside from truth being a casualty in the way electoral registration figures have been reported and circulated, another casualty has been the real story in the Electoral Commission’s report: how outsourced IT has produced faulty systems that are getting in the way of smoothly run vital public services (see p.4-5 of the full report for a start). Normally you’d expect that to make the headlines…

UPDATE: the genuinely new data from Scotland shows the number of entries on the electoral register going up, not down.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.