Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Our democracy cannot afford to make electoral registration optional

Big Bad Alastair Campbell has been writing for a while about a plan which he says is a Tory scam to take millions off the electoral register. And he's got a point.

There are three significant changes being proposed to electoral registration and the sum total of them all would have the effect of seriously damaging the UK's ambition of universal suffrage. Only one of them, however, is something that I would oppose outright.

The first change is the equalisation of the number of voters in a constituency. This was agreed as part of the parliamentary voting and constituencies act that also gave us the AV referendum. There's nothing wrong with the idea of moving to more generally equal constituency sizes. After all, it can't be right that Scotland and Wales are significantly over-represented compared to England and Northern Ireland.

But the rigid 5% rule - that every constituency must be within 5% of the ideal number - is a mistake. Why? Because as good as our electoral registration officers are, they are never going to be able to register everyone and the registration rate varies in different areas with inner cities having lower rates than rural counties. There are some who would argue that electoral office is all about representing those who want to take part. I would argue it is about representing everyone in an area regardless of whether or not they are on the register.

We also have some areas where it is possible to have too many people on the electoral register. In Cornwall, and other areas with large numbers of second homes, we have people who are also registered elsewhere. Whilst the numbers probably don't equate to those who fail to register, it is still a factor which makes a mockery of the idea that a 5% rule is a sound one.

The second change is one that I wholly support - that registration should be done by the individual rather than a 'head of the household'. One of the greatest threats to our elections is fraud and various cases have proven just how easy it is. When I worked for the Electoral Reform Society I sketched the outline of a paper called 'How to rig an election' which we decided not to take any further because it showed just how easy ballot rigging is.

Collecting personal identifiers (signatures and dates of birth) through individual registration won't stop all fraud, but it will make it much easier to catch those who try to mess with our elections and it's the best way forward.

Labour argued against that measure on the basis that it was likely to lead to lower registration rates. And this is where the third change comes in - the relaxation of the legal obligation to be on the electoral register.

This is the change I have a huge problem with. If the obligation goes then we are likely to see huge numbers of people disappear off the official lists. It may be because they want to avoid jury service, because they simply can't be bothered to fill in the form or for some other reason. Until now, there were teams of enumerators who could knock on their door and persuade them to register. At least there were if the local council was doing its job properly. There was also the threat of prosecution and a £1000 fine for failing to register. If these all go (to save money apparently) then we will see a massive cut in registration rates.

If the drop in registration were perfectly balanced across the country then it might be a case of 'so what'. But Alastair Campbell, Lewis Baston et al have a point. It won't be balanced. It will have a disproportionate effect on inner cities and poorer or less well educated people. That might or might not be biased against Labour, but it is certainly biased against the concept of fair and equal democracy.

So whilst the concept of equal constituency sizes is good, we cannot afford to be too rigid. Individual registration is a very good thing, but only if the time (and money) is put into making it work. But making registration voluntary is a terrible idea and Nick Clegg needs to think again.

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