What will be the impact of the late surge in electoral registration?

What will the impact be of the surge in new electoral registrations in the run-up to the deadline to get registered for the general election? Here’s some data.

Curiously, although the surge has got much coverage, it has rarely attempted to put the number into a proper context, particularly how many votes this might alter per constituency.

The Electoral Reform Society deserves an honourable mention for their detailed press release, though it doesn’t go into the details of the possible partisan effect which I follow below and the coverage I’ve seen citing the ERS figures often stop short even of how far the ERS went.

So step along with me as I figure out whether the number is big enough to have a likely chance of altering the result of the general election.

How many registrations were there? From the calling of the election until the deadline for registering in time to be able to vote in this general election, there were 3,850,859 applications to register.

But there was a similar surge of applications last time too. So if we want to know whether the surge this time is likely to change the election result, we need to look at the change on last time. (For more on this point, see my tweets.)

Last time there were 2,938,291 in the corresponding period, so the increase in the number of registration applications was 912,568.

Next – how many of these were actually new registrations, rather than duplicate registrations, i.e. where even without the application that person would have still been on the register at that address? The level of duplicate applications is sufficiently large as to often be a cause of complaint or spur to calls for changes in the system from those involved in the electoral registration system.

Let’s take the 2017 duplicate number and assume that things were the same this time round. The Electoral Commission’s estimate was that 36.9% of applications were duplicates in 2017. For 2019 that would reduce the 912,568 figure to 575,830 people actually being added to the electoral register.

Next up, we have to estimate how many of these people will vote. Just because you register specially for an election does not mean you will vote, just as not everyone who applies for a postal vote then actually casts it.

I’m not aware of any data on what the turnout level of late registrants is, though we do know the age profile of them skews young (as it did last time) and younger people are less likely to vote. On the other hand, perhaps those who register late are more likely than average to vote. Given the turnout last time overall was 68.8%, let’s go for 70% turnout amongst this group.

That brings the figure down from 575,830 people to 403,081 votes. That is 620 votes per constituency.

But not all those 620 people will vote the same way. To gauge the possible impact, let’s focus on Labour for the moment as most of the media coverage has been about whether Labour will benefit.

Perhaps late registrants skew heavily Labour, especially given their overall skew towards being younger. Labour currently is around 10 percentage points behind the Conservatives in the polls. Rather than being 10 points behind, let’s go for saying that Labour might be, say, 20 points ahead with the late registrants. (That 30 point difference may well be on the generous side, but as with all the estimates above you can rework the numbers with your own estimates.)

That would mean that the net effect of the 620 votes in a constituency would be to give Labour 124 more votes than the Conservatives.

If everything else were the same as in 2017, that margin would give Labour one extra seat. Only one.

Another way of looking at is to expand the net slightly, and take into account that it’s not only Labour who might net benefit from late registrants. Plus, of course, vote shares have changed in seats since 2017.

So another way of looking at it is that last time there were 12 seats where an extra net 124 votes for the party in second place would have made them the winner. But not everywhere will see the party in second being the one that is a net gainer from late registrants so that’s a maximum theoretical figure rather than a likely one.

The conclusion then? The net impact of the late registrants is likely to be, at most, in the high single-digit number of constituencies.

You can re-run the numbers above and come up with a lower figure with a bit of basic caution – such as if turnout amongst late registrants is lower than average and/or if there isn’t such a big variation from the national average levels of support among them. You can also re-run the figures to get a higher total, though it’s hard to see how credible numbers in the calculations can still give you anything other than the conclusion that in a super-tight election, late registrants might tip the result.

But of course, in a super-tight election, a myriad of other factors can also be pointed to as the one that tipped it. Including the type of building and floor level for polling stations.

Update: in response to this post, several people have made comments along the lines of ‘but what about X factor…?’, such as what if the number of new registrations is concentrated in marginal seats. Two things are worth noting about such ideas. First, that there isn’t evidence, so far at least, that such other suggested factors are true (and new data since I wrote that suggests that if anything the new registrations are concentrated in the seats where they are least rather than most likely to make a difference). They are good questions to ask but, in the absence of evidence, are not therefore good reasons to be sure of something different. Second, given how small the final impact is in the calculations above, even if there is some other factor that greatly increases it, a big increase on a small number can still end up small. Doubling that bottom-line likely impact still leaves a pretty small impact.

Update #2: I’ve updated the figures used from the Electoral Reform Society in line with the data here instead of using those in the ERS press release linked above. They add an extra 25 people per constituency to the calculations but this is not sufficient to alter the numbers of seats that might be influenced. Thank you to Justin DeVito for pointing out this improvement to the data. 

8 responses to “What will be the impact of the late surge in electoral registration?”

  1. I think we need to know how many people normally register to vote each month, compared to how many have done so in this month. The only reason the extra number of people would have registered would be because they want to vote, whilst for those who normally register the turnout would be the same as average for that demographic. I am also wondering what the percentage of the electorate has registered over the past month. So 3 million out of how many? With a higher turnout that is skewed to Labour because of the demographics, then that would be another way to calculate the numbers.

    • Geoff – as you rightly say, there would be some people registering even if there was no election. An election produces more registrations, both this time and last time (as well as before that). So if we want to know how much this is likely to alter the results, it’s the difference from last time’s surge that’s most useful as that previous surge is baked into the election results from last time.

  2. Is not the likelihood that the bulk of late registering people will be in the marginal constituencies where their vote could make a difference, rather than your average of 595 for every constituency? Either to retain their party’s MP or try to change their party’s MP if dissatisfied?

    • David – that sounds a plausible hypothesis. The big, big caveat with it though is the lack of strong evidence of it being true, either for data from this time or from previous electoral registration surges. Bear in mind too that given the very small net effect which the calculations in the post show, even if there is say, a doubling of the effect in those most marginal seats (which would be a pretty big variation to have bearing in mind that new registrations also driven by factors such as population mobility which don’t neatly map to marginality), then we’re still left with a pretty small number at the end.

  3. There is also the consideration that this is one of the times when people often move house (New Year New House) and combine this with the university student surge which would not normally factor but will with a December election. The result may well be that there are a lot more ‘duplicate’ registrations than normal.

  4. Every time; every year it angers me that people are urged – across many ‘outlets’ to not lose their right to vote but make sure they are registered.
    BUT it is the law that each person IS registered. The top of each Electoral Registration Form states that failure to complete and submit could result in a £1,000 fine.
    (Are there ever any prosecutions? I doubt it.)
    The Electoral Commission never stresses this, the Electoral Reform Society never stresses this, the BBC and other media ‘outlets’ never stress this. The political parties never stress this. Why not? Oh, we must not scare people away.

    Also, why do no media ‘outlets’, especially the broadcast ‘outlets’, ever explain that the first stage at every count is the Verification process?
    The reporters rabbiting on that the count is taking a long time don’t understand Verification, and hence cannot explain it. It does the whole process a disservice.

  5. My question may be fundamentally naive: does the current polling only focus on registered voters or people of voting age? Why would it just focus on registered voters because that would mean the pollsters were assuming all unregistered voters of voting age won’t register – that would be incorrect obviously.
    So if the pollsters are sampling voters of voting age then the effect of unregistered voters is zero

    • Pollsters sample the adult population rather than the registered electorate (in the UK at least; patterns vary elsewhere, particularly in the US where there’s a much bigger difference between the two). So an increase in registered voters shouldn’t be a problem for UK pollsters as they’re not going to suddenly find they were going after the wrong people in their surveys.

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