How accurate are Britain’s electoral registers?

The electoral register is the definitive record of who can or can’t vote in a particular election. Missing people means people aren’t able to exercise their democratic rights. Erroneous entries open up possibilities for fraud and for people who shouldn’t vote getting to cast a ballot. Statistics derived from the register are widely used to inform and shape other decisions. So having accurate registers is important.

Knowing how accurate our registers is a tough question to answer. Estimates as to the theoretical electorate if everyone entitled to vote registered – and no-one else – can be derived from population statistics. But those statistics are not perfect and the margins of error on the final calculations make it hard to judge whether our current rates of electoral registration fall at the good or bad end of the fairly narrow band that separates one from another. 98% registration rate would be good; 89% would be bad.

The Electoral Commission has therefore recently been carrying out some in depth research using a series of local case studies scattered across the country. An interim report on them has just been published. What does it say?

The study has looked at Derby, Glasgow City, Hambleton, Knowsley, Lambeth, South Ayrshire, Swansea and West Somerset:

Once the eight areas had been selected, data-mining of their registers was carried out. This involved checking the registers for visible, potential anomalies. A number of house-to-house interviews were then undertaken in each local authority in order to check whether apparent anomalies were an indicator of an inaccuracy on the register … A house-to-house survey was also undertaken in Knowsley, which was designed to produce estimates of completeness and accuracy of the local register. This entailed drawing a random, preselected sample which was subsequently used to approach interviewees…

The most common anomalies identified through data-mining were the duplication of names and the inclusion of an unusually large number of people in a household, compared to the average for that postcode…

Lambeth’s register had the highest rate of an above average number of entries (compared to the postcode average) per household: at 4.6%, over twice the rate in Derby, Swansea and Knowsley and three to six times the rate in the remaining four areas. It is not surprising that Lambeth should exhibit this pattern. As an inner-London borough, Lambeth has a significantly higher proportion of single-person households (40%, compared to an average in England of 30%), as well as a slightly higher proportion of very large households (three per cent of Lambeth households have six people or more, compared to two per cent nationally). There are also clear variations in repeated names as an anomaly on the local registers. Repeated names are more frequent in Glasgow and Knowsley (1.8% and 1.5% of the register respectively) than in the other case study areas.

However, when anomalies were followed up by door-to-door surveys, it turned out that only around a fifth to a quarter of the anomalies were due to an error on the register. The other anomalies were false alarms.

Therefore, this sort of data analysis may have a role to play in identifying areas of high possible risk with inaccurate electoral registers and to help focus investigations, but it is a relatively crude tool that cannot be used on its own.

In addition, this sort of data analysis is not going to pick up the other, more significant, sources of error – such as people not being registered at all.

The door-to-door survey in Knowsley therefore gives a better idea of the overall state of the register:

Completeness: among the eligible population, the survey found that 93.6% of those surveyed appeared on the electoral register – a figure broadly in line with available national estimates. Registration levels were found to be significantly higher among those aged 20 and over, and among interviewees who had lived at an address for at least two years and who live in properties which are owner occupied.

Accuracy: 91.4% of register entries were confirmed as being accurate. The great majority of inaccurate entries represented cases where electors are registered at addresses at which they are no longer living, or less commonly, have never been resident. Inaccuracies arising from incorrect information being entered in relation to nationality or date of birth are negligible.

This is though only one survey in one local authority. The next stage of the Electoral Commission’s research will involve carrying out similar research across the other authorities.

0 responses to “How accurate are Britain’s electoral registers?”

  1. An interesting dip into what is a huge minefield area. There’s a few areas related to registration where I think excess names do stack up:

    * I am not aware of there being any procedure for a voter to take themselves *off* the register beyond amending the annual canvass form sent to their address. Since nearly all such voters are moving out before then they are unlikely to be able to access it and the matter is entirely in the hands of others.

    * Rolling registration allows new occupants to add themselves to the register but does it allow them to remove the previous occupants or do they just get added alongside them?

    * A lot of the population really don’t understand the registration forms – in particular someone who sees the “if no changes, then there’s no need to return” instruction and their own name as registered may well not bother to return a form with predecessors on it. So the rolling registrations can easily stack up.

    * There’s a lot of adult offspring registered at parental addresses. Some of them are students, but many seem to stay on either because the family takes the attitude “this will always be your home” or because for people renting and moving about a bit it’s handy to use the parental address for permanent registrations of things like bank accounts, and the use of the register for the non-electoral purpose of address checks just encourages this practice.

    * And of course the whole mess of multiple occupancy dwellings where the forms frequently don’t reach everyone and the concept of “head of the household” is meaningless. The registration of students at termtime address is an especial mess.

    I believe in several other countries the registration process is basically turned on its head with a national (or state) register, sometimes with people automatically added 18 years after birth, whereby voters are registered as individuals and when they change their address they are automatically moved from the old to the new. That may be a way to go here.

  2. Tim: rolling registration allows for people to be taken off the register too. For example, the standard Electoral Commission rolling registration form asks people for their previous address and says they’ll be taken off the register there unless they’ve got a reason not to be (e.g. because living in two places).

  3. Interesting subject. I think it would be very hard to find out just how inacurate the register is becase the door-to-door surveyers will run in to many of the same problems the canvssers face. Here’s a brain dump of register problems I’ve encountered…

    The landlords being registered rather than the tenants. You are better placed than almost anyone else to advise when property owning ceased to be a qualification for the franchise but this is still common! Part of the issue is illegally sub-let council flats and private landlords evading tax on rents received, but sometimes I think it just stems from short-term tenants thinking that any official-looking paperwork needs to be passed to the landlord.

    There is massive underregistration among people who aren’t white British – not just where language is a problem but comments like “I’m Dutch so I can’t vote in the UK” are common.

    HMOs are either totally unregistered or have random people registered who were around on the day the form or canvessor came round.

    The census is not accurate for similar reasons – as shown by the significantly higher level of people registered with GPs in some areas than the census figures would predict.

    I could go on but Doctor Who calls…

  4. Mark: How effective is that? Having had a look at the Commission’s site they list my address in a different manner from how I write it – and for that matter from what has been on every polling card etc sent to me. The main differences come from the flat’s rooms being rented out separately but all the mail coming through a single letter box plus the need to keep the address short enough to fit on forms. This has caused problems with TV Licences in the past.

    Jon: Plural voting on the basis of property was phased out in the late 1940s (bar Northern Ireland, where it lasted until the end of the 1960s, and the City of London).

  5. I think the system works reasonably well, largely because it isn’t an automated system – so someone writing their address in a different format from the one used on the register gets picked up by a human somewhere along the way.

    A follow on question is whether more automated data reporting and matching could be done (e.g. tying in driving license address giving / changing with the electoral register) without getting into civil liberties issues or undermining the purity of the purpose of electoral register and so putting more people off registering at all.

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