A quick note on the Individual Electoral Registration vote tonight and what it means, since I fear it will be badly reported elsewhere. As readers may know, electoral registration has now moved over from household registration (where one member of the household filled in a form to register everyone) to individual registration (there is still a household form to sign off for no change, but new registrations need to be done individually). Making it a little harder to register has created a lot of concern about whether it will lead to falling registration, particularly in residential communities like student halls of residence, where in the past the university authority could have registered everyone en masse.
That, however, is for another time. Tonight’s vote isn’t about the principle of individual registration and will make no difference to whether it happens or not. It is on one narrow, but important, part of the transition from household registration to individual registration.
The normal process of electoral registration is – crudely speaking – that once a year there is a canvas of every household, asking people if their details on the electoral register are correct. Local councils will remove entries that are no longer accurate and add on new people. People who don’t reply at all will be badgered with extra letters and knocks on the door, but eventually some people won’t reply. Those people are left on the register for a year, and then if they don’t reply to two canvasses in a row, deleted from the register. People get one year’s grace without being removed.
During the transition process that was different. The annual canvas in 2014 was cancelled for the transition process – people on the old register were matched against government databases, like benefits records, and those who matched were automatically moved across to the new system. Only people who couldn’t be automatically moved across were contacted and required to register on the new system. There was no cleaning of the register though, even if they couldn’t be automatically moved and across and didn’t respond to contacts, people on the old register were kept on the new Dec 2014 register to make sure they didn’t miss out on the general election.
For 2015 the annual canvas was started again, so every household got a letter asking people to confirm their existing details on the register. People who reply were updated (though new people now need to fill in an individual registration) and people who didn’t reply at all were chased. The question to be decided tonight is what to do with people who didn’t reply (or more specifically, people who don’t reply this year and weren’t verified or registered last year either – the year’s grace remains either way).
The legislation setting up individual registration said that people who don’t reply in 2015 should NOT be removed in 2015, but also specifically gave the government the power to change this by statutory instrument and recommence cleaning in 2015 if they preferred. The Electoral Commission recommended the government did not do this, and gave people the extra year’s grace. This is what tonight’s vote is on – are people who weren’t transitioned or re-registered on the new system in 2014 AND did not reply to this year’s electoral canvas left on the register or not?
In May 2015 there were 1.9m people still on the register who hadn’t been registered under the new system. Of course, all of these entries will not be removed, as there has been a full canvas since then and many of them will have replied to this year’s canvas and now be on the new system. It is still likely to be a substantial number. The change only affects people who replied to the electoral canvas at an address in 2013, but have not subsequently replied to electoral registration officers at that address since then, when during that time efforts will have been made to contact them several times for the transition to individual voting and in this year’s annual canvass. They will probably have had to ignore about nine letters reminding them to register. They also need to not be in receipt of benefits at that address and not on other government databases used for data matching, or they would have been automatically registered. In short, a lot of those people probably couldn’t be matched because they don’t live at that address any more, and may or may not be living or registered somewhere else. Finally, it’s worth remembering that people who are left off this December’s register can register to vote up until a couple of weeks before the local/mayoral/police/Scottish/Welsh elections next year.
In terms of the impact on individual voters, I fear there is some hyperbole going on. However, the impact of the vote isn’t just on individual voters, it’s important for another reason – arguably more so. The registers published on the 1st December this year are the ones that will be used for the new boundary review, and the removal of these rolled over names will make a difference. In the twenty council areas with the highest number of people held over from the 2013 register, about 11% of people on the register in May 2015 were held over, in the twenty council areas with the lowest number of people rolled over about 1% of people on the register in May 2015 were held over. The places with lots of held over entries are mostly (but not exclusively) Labour held areas, the places with few held over entries are mostly (but not exclusively) Conservative held areas. Again, remember many of these people will probably have been picked up in this year’s canvas, so it doesn’t mean 11% and 1% will be removed – the numbers will be lower than that – but it does mean the number of people on the registers will drop more in Labour areas than in Conservative areas.
Cleaning people who have not responded to the canvas off the register will decrease the registered electorate in inner-city Labour areas and make the boundary review better for the Conservatives. Leaving them on will make the boundary review better for Labour. We don’t know what proportion of the rolled over entries on the register relate to real people still living at those addresses and what proportion are “dead entries” related to people who no longer live at that address. The Conservatives can argue that leaving inaccurate entries on the register would skew the review by bumping up the electorate in areas with inaccurate registers full of outdated entries, Labour can argue that harshly pruning the register would skew the review by under-representing the electorate in areas of social-deprivation with populations who are less likely to register to vote. I suspect neither are entirely free from self-interest, but one way or the other it has to be decided: Parliament has until Monday to annul the statutory instrument or it remains law.