How 10 million UK voters could be lost

Reform to voter registration could have a far more wide-ranging effect than the boundary changes.

The head of the Electoral Commission has called it the biggest change to voting since the introduction of universal franchise. Boundary changes? No. While Westminster and the media have focused on proposed changes to constituencies, another reform could have an even more profound effect, allowing as many as 10 million voters -- predominantly poor, young, and likely to vote Labour -- to fall off the electoral register entirely.

The government wants to introduce individual voter registration rather than household registration, before the 2015 election. Essentially, this makes it an act of choice rather than civic duty to engage with the political system. This is compounded by ministers' surprise proposal that it should no longer be compulsory to co-operate with electoral registration officers when they compiling the register. Refusing to comply is currently an offence which can carry a fine of up to £1,000.

There are several obvious problems. There are clear incentives for people not to register, as the electoral roll is used for jury service and to tackle credit card fraud. But more importantly, it is difficult to see any justification for further removing already disenfranchised communities from the political process.

According to the Guardian, which appears to be the only paper to report this story today, MPs on the political and constitutional reform select committee have been interviewing experts this week about the implications, and are "genuinely shocked" at their findings.

The testimony of experts simply follows steps of logic, so it is difficult to see why the MPs are so surprised. Jenny Russell, the chair of the Electoral Commission, explained:

"It is logical to suggest that those that do not vote in elections will not see the point of registering to vote and it is possible that the register may therefore go from a 90 per cent completeness that we currently have to 60-65 per cent."

It is highly likely that this will vary greatly between areas. John Stewart, chairman of the electoral registration officers, predicts that the drop-off will be around 10 per cent in "the leafy shires", but 30 per cent in inner city areas.

This means that the fall-off will be disproportionately focused on the young, the poor, and ethnic minorities. This could have significant political impact, as all of these groups are more likely to vote Labour when they do vote. The greatest effect will be in 2020, as the boundaries for that election will be based on the voluntary individual register compiled in 2015. If 30 per cent of voters in inner city Labour areas have disappeared, the Boundary Commission will have to reduce these seats, because its sole objective is to equalise the size of the electorate -- the number of registered voters, not the number of people -- ignoring natural borders.

However, these party-political concerns should be secondary to the profound implications this could have for democracy in the UK. Already, 3 million people eligible to vote do not register, despite the fact that co-operation with electoral officers is compulsory. Huge swathes of our society are already disenfranchised, as this summer's riots painfully showed. This is not the time to compound that disconnect.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.