Unsolved problems of individual electoral registration

So far, the planned move from household to individual electoral registration in Great Britain (catching up with the changes made in Northern Ireland several years ago) has generated rather more political heat than light. But after the announcement from Nick Clegg at the last Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions that he is minded to part of the government’s plans, what is the outlook for the proposal?

Individual electoral registration to go ahead

First, and most important, individual electoral registration is going to go ahead. Although some of the highly charged Labour rhetoric saw attacks on the principle of individual electoral registration, wiser (and cooler) Labour heads have since backed away and started confining their criticisms to how it will be implemented. That is a return to political sense, for it was after all Labour that first legislated for individual registration in Great Britain and talked up its achievement in so doing in its 2010 manifesto.

However, as Nick Clegg indicated, the government will drop its proposal to make it easy for people to say “I don’t want to join the electoral register and don’t ask me about it again”.

Will electoral registration be a legal requirement?

But what is still very much up for debate is the question of whether it will be a legal requirement to join the electoral register. Under household registration there is a legal obligation on the person filling in the form to complete it accurately and to return the form. With the switch to individual registration in Northern Ireland that legal requirement moved over to individuals, but the government is proposing that it should be dropped when the change in the rest of the UK.

Mixed in here are issues of principle (should registration be a legal requirement?), issues of legal pragmatism (how sensible is it to have an offence which almost never sees prosecutions?), issues  of unintended consequence (the jury system relies on the electoral register so would be affected by a switch to a voluntary system), issues of timing (even if you think it is a good idea, why risk doing it at the same time as the big and tricky switch to individual registration?) and issues of low politics (what might the electoral impact be?).

A partial compromise could be made over keeping registration a legal requirement, but as a civil rather than a criminal offence, but that still leaves the big question of principle. With widespread debate even within government (and across party lines within government), it is not clear which way things are likely to go.

Should there be a full annual canvass?

Where the likely outcome is clearer is on the final area of debate over significant detail – whether to carry out a full ‘annual canvass’ in the year when the switch is being made from household to individual electoral registration. The government wants to drop the annual canvass so that, it argues, there can instead be a modified canvass where electoral administrators can concentrate their proactive efforts on ‘hard to register’ people. Critics fear a targeted approach will end up worse, rather than better (cf arguments over targeted versus universal benefits and take-up rates).

The Electoral Commission is opposed to this planned drop, but electoral administrators are ambivalent – with their views during the consultation best summarised as asking the government to think more about the pros and cons.

Which all leaves the cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, currently holding hearings on individual registration, with the power. If it comes out and backs the Electoral Commission’s view, it will be all but impossible for the government to get a measure opposed by both the regulator and the cross-party scrutiny committee through the Lords, even if it wished to. But if the committee backs the government line, then conversely that will provide plenty of political cover for the government to stand firm in its disagreement with the Electoral Commission.

Either way, individual registration is on its way.

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