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Anxiety over voter fraud must not stifle electoral registration

By rushing the implementation of the new scheme, the government risks leaving millions off the register.

Voting slips are emptied out of the ballot box during the South Shields by-election on May 2, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

This week, the Electoral Commission released proposals to clamp down on electoral fraud, requiring voters to show photographic ID at polling stations. Sensible measures to tackle fraud are welcome, but we should be careful not to further exacerbate the already woefully low levels of democratic engagement. There is real concern that the government’s current plans will make things worse. 

The Electoral Commission themselves say there is no evidence to suggest that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK and there have been only a handful of convictions. Yet, we know that at the last general election, only 44% of young people voted. Millions of eligible voters are not even on the electoral register, which means they can’t vote and are not represented in the drawing of political boundaries. The 2011 Electoral Register, the last that can be directly compared with census data, showed the huge disparity in representation for different groups on the register. Around half of 19-24 years olds were not registered, compared to 6% of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities were on the register compared to white people. 56% of people living in private rented homes were counted, compared to nearly 90% of homeowners.

Inevitably, there is a balancing act between protecting our elections from potential fraud but also encouraging as many people as possible to go out and vote. Most of the serious cases of fraud have been linked to the exploitation of postal voting, and the rules have been tightened. It’s important we don’t stifle electoral registration in the midst of understandable anxiety about fraud.

The last Labour government legislated for the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration, which is an important step in modernising the way we vote and protecting the system from exploitation. The change means individuals themselves will need to join the electoral register, instead of a single member of a household filling out the form for all inhabitants. Labour's approach was that the changes would be phased over a number of years, with numerous checks and balances to ensure levels of registration were high. 

Yet the government are rushing the implementation of the new scheme, ignoring widespread concerns that by doing so, they risk leaving millions off the register. Individual Electoral Registration has now been piloted by the government, attempting to match people with data at the Department for Work and Pensions. The results only emphasise our fears. 8.7 million of the electorate could not be matched against the records held. Urban areas are losing out. An astonishing 26% of voters in London may not be eligible to vote in the Mayoral elections in 2016. Our young people will also suffer as the figures at our universities were remarkably low. In Lancaster University – an electoral ward – just 0.1% of the current electorate could be matched to the DWP database. All the statistics and evidence suggests that if we continue as we are, young, urban populations will be disproportionately affected by these dramatic changes. Yet the government continues to go ahead. 

Labour has called on the government to delay the implementation process, giving local authorities, universities and electoral registration officers more time to ensure as many people as possible are involved and represented. It’s a good example of the importance of striking a balance when it comes to reforming our democratic processes. The move to Individual Electoral Registration is the right thing to do, and will help tackle fraud. But it must be delivered with care and by adopting a phased approach, to ensure as many people as possible are involved. 

The electoral register performs a hugely important civic function. Beyond allowing our citizens the ability to vote, the register affects the wider political settlement and enables the selection of juries. We should try to ensure as many people as possible are registered, whilst maintaining vigilance about potential fraud.