Individual electoral registration: consultation response

Here’s the response I’ve sent to the Electoral Registration Transformation Programme in response to the consultation on the draft legislation for individual electoral registration, which closes on 14 October.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the draft legislation which has been published to implement individual electoral registration in Great Britain. The publication of a full draft for public consultation is a very welcome improvement on the way in which some other electoral changes have been handled in recent years.

On the principle of individual electoral registration, I am very supportive of the government’s intention to introduce it. During the years I was attending the Electoral Commission’s Political Parties Panel on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, representatives of all the main parties frequently expressed their support for the principle, so seeing it introduced is a welcome response to those long-standing calls from across the political spectrum and from the independent regulator, the Electoral Commission.

In that respect I agree with Michael Wills, the then Labour Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, who said in  Parliament on 13 July 2009, “I hope that all Members will agree that this historic shift will enrich our democracy”.

I agree though with the government’s proposal to scrap the intermediary “voluntary individual registration” phrase proposed by Michael Wills as it would have provided an intermediary phase with few of the benefits but many of the costs of a full individual registration scheme.

There are, however, two points of important detail on which I disagree with the government’s proposals.

First, it is proposed to remove the legal requirement to register to vote. I oppose this as a proposal being made at the wrong time, in the wrong way and without full consideration of its impact as key factors are missing from the official Impact Assessment and Cost Benefit Analysis:

  1. It is a significant shift in the principle of electoral registration which, regardless of its inherent merits, has not been preceded by the extensive debate, cross-party agreement and Electoral Commission support which the principle of introducing individual registration has.
  2. The proposal is not necessary to make individual electoral registration work, and to introduce such a major change of principle at the same time as introducing individual electoral registration risks undermining the primary aim unnecessarily by reducing registration rates at the very time when the switch to individual registration makes maintaining them more challenging.
  3. By making electoral registration voluntary, the change would also in effect be making jury service voluntary, given the reliance on the electoral register for jury service. I note the phrase “jury service” does not appear once in Cm 8108: Individual Electoral Registration nor in the accompanying Impact Assessment. If the government is intending to create a new separate system to avoid making jury service voluntary, it is a major flaw in the consultation for it not to be mentioned (and it is hard to see how it can be intending to create such a system without introducing costs which are not mentioned in the official Cost Benefit Analysis). Alternatively, if the impact on jury service has simply not been considered, that in itself would be a major reason to drop the proposal as it means the government’s decision-making process has omitted a significant issue.
  4. The Impact Assessment refers to the advantages in fighting crime of an accurate and complete electoral register, yet it does not consider the consequence impediment to fighting crime from voluntary registration reducing the completeness of the electoral register.

In other words, making electoral registration voluntary is not a necessary part of individual registration, has been raised as an idea relatively late in the day and would have important impacts on jury service and crime fighting which are omitted from the official Impact Assessment and Cost Benefit Analysis, as well as not being mentioned in Cm 8108.

The obvious conclusion from that is that this is a rushed proposal that has not been properly considered. The sensible response therefore is to drop it.

The second point on which I disagree is the suggestion that a full annual canvass, with comprehensive door knocking, might not be carried out in 2014, and instead be replaced with a predominantly posted-out system based on records that, as the Impact Assessment itself acknowledges, will contain many errors.

Given both the importance of accurate electoral registers in the run-up to a general election and also the need to communicate with people the changes being introduced, maintaining a full annual canvass in 2014 would bring two major benefits. Moreover, given the risk of a post-general election drop in registration levels in 2015 which then affects the electoral register to be used for the next Parliamentary boundary review, there is a strong case to continue with a full canvass in 2015 and only subsequently review the options for reduced canvassing.

Yours etc.

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