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.