As we all know, there are gaping holes in electoral registers in the UK, but it appears that it is not just in the United States that some right wing politicians seem to be happy about people being excluded from voting. A debate in the House of Commons in early November, during the discussion of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2019-21, has highlighted this once again.
Following amendments made in the House of Lords, a majority of MPs sadly voted to reject the proposal to add 16-year-olds to the register, or to provide them with information on how to apply to join the register when they receive their National Insurance number.
Last November, just before the deadline to register for the 2019 General Election, the Electoral Commission revealed that between 8.3 million and 9.4 million eligible voters were not on the register from their current address; this is about 17% – just under 1 in 5 – of the adult population.
We should be alarmed enough at that fact on its own, but other data published for 2018 shows that 1 in 4 Black and Asian people were not registered to vote, and nor were around 1 in 3 amongst 18-24 year olds. Furthermore, whilst almost 1 in 5 of social tenants were not registered, around 1 in 3 of private tenants were not on the list to vote. These are indeed shocking figures, and we really do need to take action to rectify this.
In part, this is due to the botched introduction of individual electoral registration made by the Coalition Government in 2014: against the advice of the Electoral Commission, instead of parents registering their adult children or institutional landlords like universities registering everyone in halls of residence, each person now has to register themselves, and must do so each time they move.
The change was rushed in without either electors or universities being given time to understand what the change meant. As a result, at least 600,000 voters vanished from the electoral roll, and a significant proportion of these have not yet been recovered.
While many universities have made efforts to encourage students to register, including information about registration in packs for first year students in halls or elsewhere, there are huge gaps in registrations for private tenants – both students and others – and particularly those in multi-occupied buildings where it can be hard for registration agents employed by local authorities to gain access.
Even without new legislation, it is arguable that local authorities could do more to encourage registration, for example using the contact they have with council tax payers, benefit claimants, parking permit users, blue badge holders, care users, and indeed, parents of school children.
But it is also possible for the housing sector to more do to help. Firstly, all councils, ALMOs and Housing Associations could make registering to vote easy for their tenants, getting people to sign an electoral registration form when they sign up for a new tenancy, and reminding them to re-register every time they move. Many housing organisations carry out programmed tenancy checks, often using electoral registers as part of the exercise, so they could easily contact and provide a prompt to all those not registered. At the very least, registering to vote should form part of every conversation with a new or relocating tenant, and at least once a year with all other tenants.
Secondly, information could be made available to housing staff, and to community organisations, particularly those working with tenants whose first language may not be English. They could explain who is allowed to register to vote and for which elections (it’s not entirely straightforward, as all Labour Party canvassers will know!), as well as the need for each individual to register and how to do it.
Thirdly, and very importantly, all support and care providers should ensure that their staff know how to help people register and how to vote. This should be part of the contract for every employee working with vulnerable residents, including helping them to access information about the candidates and the political parties they represent, and helping them to access the voting system, all of which can be done without displaying any political bias themselves. Coming across a resident who had wanted to vote but could not get to the polling station, fill in a ballot paper, or register to vote without help is amongst my least favourite experiences on Polling Day.
Finally, what can we do about private tenants, some of whom move every year as a result of Thatcher’s dismantling in 1988 of security of tenure in the private rented sector? It’s of course really a matter for Parliament to change the way that this is done: in Australia, individual voter registration has been in place for years, with voters staying on the register even if they move, with cross-referencing between multiple databases making it far less likely that people will be lost. In this country, the work has to be done by each council on a separate basis, with thousands of people coming off the register in each district every year, meaning a huge waste of resources.
Until we get a change to address this (and, my preferred option, to introduce compulsory registration) at national level, we have to rely on action at a local level. Private sector housing teams could ensure voter registration is mentioned at all meetings with landlords, even making it a requirement to issue an electoral registration form as part of landlord licensing and accreditation schemes.
The easiest solution to the unacceptable rate of electoral registration in the UK would be to automatically register people when they got their NI number, and require people to register each time they moved. But until we have a government that wants to make it as easy as possible for people to register, housing organisations which are in touch with a significant number of electors one way or another could take some responsibility for helping them to make their voices heard.