Ballot papers cast in the Newark by-election are counted in Kelham Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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One website won't solve the voter registration problem

The government's policy of Individual Electoral Registration will make things worse.

Today, the government has launched a website which allows online voter registration. You can have a look here. This is a really important initiative, which we should all welcome. Now, with a few simple clicks and a national insurance number, people will be able to register more conveniently. Hopefully, the website will be attractive for younger people, who now mostly use online services for personal administration.

Whilst this is a positive development, we should all be aware of the vast challenge we face because of under-registration. There are already around 6 million people eligible to vote who aren’t on the register, with huge disparities between different demographic groups. Around half of 18-24 years olds are not registered, compared to six per cent of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities are on the register compared to white people. Fifty six per cnet of people living in private rented homes are counted, compared to nearly 90 per cent of homeowners.

The government is currently rushing to introduce Individual Electoral Registration – which will require each individual to register, rather than the current head of household. In the short-term, this is likely to make things worse. The government’s figures from their own pilots suggest that nearly 9 million of the current electorate face falling off the register, as they can’t be matched with government-held (DWP) data.

The same groups which are currently under-represented are most susceptible to the drop-off. Transient groups, such as young people and private renters may find their political voice is further stifled. The website will  help mitigate the potentially disastrous decline in registration. But it is not a silver bullet and there is much more we can all do across the country.

Students are a group that are in danger of falling off the register, as they move from home to halls to private renting during their studies. In Sheffield,  my colleague Paul Blomfield MP is working with all the Universities to ensure electoral registration is integrated with the process of enrolling each year. This mechanism is now being adopted by other universities across the country – from Norwich to Lincoln to Liverpool, many Labour MPs, PPCs and councillors are working with NUS and universities to ensure the student voice is heard.

Many Labour councils are working innovatively to ensure their levels of registration are maintained. Local data-matching – matching voters with council-held data – can help locate those in danger of falling off the register. Councils can encourage letting agents to offer voter registration forms as part of their new tenants' kit. They can make this happen in social housing too.

The next Labour government will do its bit. Sadiq Khan and I have already said that we will not implement individual electoral registration unless levels of registration are assured. We are commited to working with schools, as hubs of our local community, to encourage registration and will implement the Schools Initiative, which helped dramatically increase registration amongst young people in Northern Ireland. This ensures teachers and local electoral registration officers are working together to register youngsters . Combined with Labour’s commitment to offering votes at 16 and improved citizenship education, Labour will offer an empowering agenda to young people, who too often feel disengaged from the political process.

The campaigning organisation Bite the Ballot  have been advocating the implementation of the Schools Initiative for some time. They are also undertaking fantastic work on the ground, going into schools and colleges to talk and debate with young people about politics, their communities, their aspirations and their concerns with the aim of urging people to register to vote. Their inaugural National Voter Registration day was a huge success and plans are already afoot to ensure the momentum continues up to the general election and beyond.

At the European elections, only 34 per cent of people came out to vote. A lack of voter registration is one source of the low turnout. Whilst today’s launch is welcome, one website is not going to solve this problem. There is much more work to be done, and Labour is rising to that challenge.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.