Data sharing and electoral registration: there should be a second opt-out

Over on the Open Rights Group blog, Jason Kitcat has recounted the recent meeting hosted by the Cabinet Office about the government’s plans to improve data sharing across the public sector in order to improve electoral registration, particularly as we shift to individual registration (the benefits of which I’ve blogged about here).

These plans could range from the helpful (such as giving people the option when, say, telling the TV Licensing Authority that they have moved also to have the information sent to update their electoral register entry) through to the very different (such as linking up tax records with electoral registration information without any notification or opting-in).

Jason reports that,

The event was bookended by talks from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP (LibDem) and his junior minister Mark Harper MP (Conservative). They both clearly knew their briefs and were keen to push forward the move to individual voter registration and ditch household registration as soon as possible. There’s no doubt that the ‘head of a household’ registering everyone as he sees fit is archaic and prone to fraud (and it would typically be a ‘he’). ORG has long called for a move to individual voter registration as a way to prevent fraud in our electoral system…

An electoral services officer there told me how officers used to loudly proclaim how registering to vote wouldn’t lead to the data being shared with tax, immigration or any other parts of government. Now that’s all gone, the officer said, and in the small print on the back of the form you are told that it is (quite legally) shared across local and central government, as well as with credit agencies, of course.

The next step will be to use other sources of data, particularly the national insurance database, to infer who isn’t on the electoral roll but should be. This seems worthy, of course we want to help people get registered to vote. Yet… one of the reasons why a new national identity scheme was proposed by the previous government was because none of the existing registers were particularly accurate. Of course nothing is 100% perfect, but the national insurance database is known to be full of inconsistencies and one wonders what new problems will be introduced with a head-long dive into data matching.

A different example of the problems is the ability of people to opt-out from the version of the electoral register which commercial direct mail firms and others can buy and use. That sounds fine and a good move, except that “and others” includes, for example, council planning departments. So if a council wants to personally write to people in an area about a planning application (and in a dense flat-land urban area writing individually can be the only way to try to get the message through to people) then it cannot use the full register.

There have even been elections in the past for organisations such as local development boards which have not been able to use the full electoral register so by opting out people have also ended up opting themselves out of the right to vote in those elections.

Myself, I would like to see a two-tier level of opting out – one from any data sharing and one from data sharing for commercial purposes, though this leads to some tricky to define cases such as charities who do fundraising. However lawyers have triumphed over far harder definitional problems in the past.

Unfortunately, my response to the previous government consultation on this issue doesn’t seem to have won the day. Yet, adds the optimist in me…

One response to “Data sharing and electoral registration: there should be a second opt-out”

  1. The problem with individual voter registration is not the principle of registering individuals per se, but the use of it as a cover for wider data-sharing powers. The electoral commission has helped facilitate new initiatives like postal votes, in a bid to increase voter participation. Really though there is a bigger political problem, people don’t vote because they don’t think voting changes anything. Postal voting that is new, is now largely responsible for most of the electoral fraud.

    This raises more questions, that the electoral commission claims in its reports it has the answers to. They claim we need more ways to vote, that in turn require ever more complex verification and Identification systems (and presumably a larger Electoral Commission to report on them all). They were even suggesting biometric verification at polling booths might solve problems, when all that was needed was more staff.

    The benefits of data-sharing being discussed in the arena of voter registration reads like a page of Labour’s Transformational Government policy document – The agenda at the heart of the National Identity Register opposed by both Coalition parties. Large scale data-matching will be prone to errors, further remove privacy and turn the electoral roll into a centralised population database.

    I know poor people struggling with debts who fear going on the electoral roll because they know debt collecting companies will gain the information. If you want more people voting, then ensuring an electoral roll is a standalone system that isn’t shared is the way to do it.

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