Should copies of the electoral register be put on sale?

The Ministry of Justice is running a consultation on whether bodies such as marketing firms and charities should be able to buy copies of the electoral register to use for their direct mail and other operations. There is a high chance this review could lead to a change in the law.

There are currently three electoral registers:

  1. The full electoral register, which is used for running elections and which is available to political parties and election candidates for them to contact voters and other electoral purposes. It is also available to various law enforcement and other public sector organisations for use in their work.
  2. The edited electoral register, which is available for purchase. People can opt out of being included in this version (hence “edited”) and it is this version which underpins many a direct mail operation.
  3. The marked register, which is the full electoral register for any election along with records of who either voted in person or returned postal ballot papers.

The basic question is: should people be able to buy copies of the edited register and use it for purposes that are nothing to do with administering or fighting elections?

Within this is a set of more detailed debates:

  • Is it in principle wrong for the register to be for sale, or is opt out (or perhaps even opt in) sufficient?
  • If the sale of the electoral register is stopped, how will councils deal with losing the income they currently get from the sale? Are higher taxes or spending cuts an acceptable outcome?
  • How should credit reference agencies be treated? They are commercial organisations but people benefit from being able to get their address checked as part of credit checks.
  • Would stopping marketing firms buying the register really result in less unwanted junk mail or would it just mean their records are worse and direct mail is more likely to end up being misdirected or wrongly targeted (and hence ‘junk’) than at the present?
  • Should there be any differential treatment for ‘nice’ marketing, such as permitting charities to use the register for fundraising activities even if commercial firms are banned?
  • Would ending the sale of any form of the register mean people are more willing to get on the electoral register in the first place?

This consultation follows a report from Richard Thomas (Information Commissioner) and Mark Walport (Director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest charity) which recommended that sale of the register should be abolished. Therefore this is a very real consultation.

Councils have long argued they need the income from the sale of the register, but with the Information Commissioner and others putting pressure on from the other side the final outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

The review says:

The Government will consider a range of options for the future of the Edited Register, including abolition, changing the process by which individuals are included on it or improving public awareness of the Edited Register. Views are invited on the options set out in this paper, especially from those who may be directly affected.

You can read the full consultation and find out how to send in your own views here. The deadline is 23 February 2010.

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