Soon, every citizen in Britain will need to register individually and provide key personal identifiers in order to register. When this was introduced in Northern Ireland there was a significant decline in levels of electoral registration…
One idea that the government has been exploring to prevent any drop is data-mining. This involves registration officers using other government databases, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Student Loans Company etc., to find the names and addresses of people who are not on the register. They can then be written to and invited to register.
The government and Electoral Commission published reports on the effectiveness of data-matching pilots on Wednesday. This or its consequences was not picked up by any media, as far as I am aware, perhaps because there was no Electoral Commission or Cabinet Office press release. Sadly for British democracy, the news is not good.
The first thing to say is that the pilots were not a perfect experiment. The Electoral Commission noted that registration officers were hindered by ‘delays and… [needed] a greater level of support’ from the Cabinet Office (p.2). However, the headlines are that:
- The databases used produced low levels of new electoral registrations. If managed differently, there might have been greater returns, the Electoral Commission suggested and the evaluations might have been able to be more certain about whether these were really new registrations or not.
- It was very expensive. Registration officers therefore could not absorb this practice into their everyday practice without significantly more money. Cabinet Office did not publish their expenditure (p.4) so there might be more costs involved in managing the process centrally. This comes at a time of government spending cuts.
The Electoral Commission has therefore concluded that the pilot does ‘not justify the national roll out’ of data-matching.
I’m less pessimistic than Toby about the implications of the poor returns from the data matching pilots as other lessons have been learnt from Northern Ireland aside from these pilots. There’s also one side-benefit – the idea of the state using big databases to track down people raises all sorts of civil liberties concerns, even if the intent is a welcome one, so dropping national data matching means those concerns will be allayed.