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6 March 2014

We must not let individual voter registration disenfranchise students

The new system could have a huge effect in student-heavy marginals. Universities, councils and others must be aware of the dangers.

By Stephen Twigg

At the next election, the student voice must be heard. Under this government, students have seen tuition fees tripled, EMA scrapped and record high levels of youth unemployment. Many graduates will leave university with a lot of debt and little prospect of immediate work.

But there is a risk that many students will be unable to vote because of plans to individually register voters. Individual Electoral Registration requires those who are not already on a household register, and cannot be matched with DWP data, to register individually. As a transient population, moving from their family home to a new place of study, often without contact with the benefits system or paid employment, students are a particularly susceptible group.

For many enrolling at university for the first time, registering to vote is understandably not their top priority. There’s remembering to bring all your books, registering with a new GP, the stress that naturally comes from leaving home for the first time and, perhaps most importantly, all the other distractions of freshers’ week! It is often only when the general election campaign starts that students will become engaged in the choices they face. By then, it may be too late. At present, electors can only register to vote up to 11 days before polling day. Many students may be disenfranchised.

This could have a huge effect on the general election result. Many of the seats that will decide who forms the next government have large full-time student populations. In Lancaster and Fleetwood, the sitting Tory MP has a majority of just 333. There are 14,334 students in the constituency. A vast majority of them will have to register individually or will be disenfranchised. The government’s own pilot shows that 99 per cent of Lancaster University will not be on the register unless each individual signs up.

In Cardiff North, the Conservative majority is 194 and the student population is 8,268. In Manchester Withington, the current Lib Dem has a majority of 1,894, but potentially faces a student backlash, with 15,761 living in his constituency. And it’s not just coalition-held marginals that could be threatened. My colleague Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, has a majority of 165 and the highest student population in the country of 36,335.

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Many have already seen the dangers of this on the horizon. Indeed, Paul is working with his local council in Sheffield and the university to ensure as many of the students in his constituency have a chance to vote. Where possible, the University and the Electoral Registration Officer is entwining student enrolment with voter registration. In my city of Liverpool, I am convening a meeting with the university and the Ccuncil this week to put in place plans to replicate this model. 

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Across the country, universities, councils and student unions should be aware of the challenges individual registration represents. If they don’t do something about it, many students may turn up at the ballot box, determined to have their say, only to be turned away.  

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