What’s the point of switching to individual electoral registration?

As some background to the current debates, I thought it useful to revive and update a post of my on the subject as there has been relatively little coverage of the reasons why it has been supported by all parties (including Labour, who even talked up their achievement in introducing the first legislation for individual electoral registration before 2010, in their last general election manifesto).

The current electoral registration system is based on one registration form being delivered to each household, with the head of the household completing the form on behalf of everyone there and sending it back (“household registration”).

One reason therefore for switching to individual registration is a point of principle: someone’s ability (if they aren’t the head of a household) to vote shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not someone else has filled in a form for them.

This switch will also reduce the problems with rented property, where in urban areas particularly it is far from rare for electoral registration forms to be filled in with the name of the landlord (only), resulting in those living in a property not being registered and someone who really lives elsewhere being put on the register at that address. It’s regular experience in such areas for political canvassers to call on a house which is clearly occupied by several adults but to see that there is only one name on the electoral register – and to be told it is that of the landlord.

Individual registration will also allow the recording of “personal identifiers” such as signatures. This will in turn make it easier to take (further) action against fraud, either in postal votes or in impersonating someone else at a polling station. These anti-fraud benefits have been regularly mentioned by the Electoral Commission and local government electoral registration staff as a major reason for supporting individual electoral registration.

Postal vote fraud

People already have to give personal identifiers when applying for a postal vote (which are then checked against those given when a postal vote is cast). By adding in a need to give them when you join the electoral register too, it makes one type of postal vote fraud much harder – where you take the names of people on the electoral register who you know are not going to vote (e.g. because they have moved away) and then forge both postal vote applications and subsequent postal votes in their name. Individual registration, however, means you would need to have also faked information when someone joins the register – not impossible, but rather like putting a window lock in at home doesn’t stop the determined burglar but stops some, by extending the number of forgeries required and needing more planning in advance, it makes it harder and therefore should stop some postal vote fraud. It would also mean any forgery requires more organisation and more fake paperwork, raising the chances of forensic evidence being left behind, people talking and so on.

Impersonation at polling stations

Individual registration also would make it possible to tackle the risks of impersonation at polling stations. At the moment, there is relatively little protection against “impersonation” – turning up at a polling station, claiming to be someone else and getting to vote in their name – and political campaigners in some parts of the country fear that it is becoming the new favoured route for fraud. There was a brief, aborted attempt under Labour to try out asking for personal identifiers at some elections, but was abandoned after it was realised that the legislation passed to allow this was faulty.

Possible downsides of individual regsistration

There is a risk that the switch to individual registration will result in fewer people registering – because rather than relying on someone else completing a form, everyone has to fill in their own form. This is what happened initially in Northern Ireland when it made the switch, although registration numbers did then bounce back to a large degree. Quite how far back you think it bounced depends on how many fake electoral register entries you think there were in Northern Ireland before the change, a topic on which there are widely varying views.

There is likely to be a particular issue with universities, where currently the university authorities often automatically register all students who are living in university accommodation. To help deal with this and other issues, the government is currently piloting data-matching exercises which could highlight both likely missing names from the register and also suspicious, possibly fraudulent, entries.

For the switch to be a success, it will require a significant publicity campaign, and may well also see political parties start to get more heavily involved in pushing registration than in the past. However, with both we can have a more secure electoral system which, by increasing confidence in our electoral system, also helps increase public involvement in elections.

The piece does not mention making electoral registration voluntary, as that is not a requirement of moving to individual electoral registration. On that topic see my response to the government’s consultation on electoral registration.

3 responses to “What’s the point of switching to individual electoral registration?”

  1. I'm curious. Is there reliable evidence that shows that the signature requirements for postal voting does more to (a) prevent fraud, or (b) disenfranchise those that have variable signatures?

    • Ian: I'm not aware of any evidence the people having variable signatures causes a problem with votes therefore being disqualified and the cases I've seen have been ones were the signature isn't even close to matching. Have you had a different experience, e.g. at a postal vote opening?

    • Mark Pack Yes, I think the whole thing is very unsettling.

      I'm pretty sure that people can naturally have wildly varying signatures (perhaps due to disability), and the sample signature can remain on record forever, as far as I know. I've also seen people confuse birthday with date of birth. And, it's usually older people who mismatch, from what I've seen, so there's probably a political bias to the system.

      I've not heard of anyone being investigated for fraud as a result of a mismatch. So there's a summary punishment here, with no judicial process. Neither are rejected voters notified of the problem.

      Finally, returning officers don't report the number of unopened ballots, even though they are much higher than the number of spoiled papers.

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