With elections for the devolved assemblies, Greater London Assembly, the Mayor of London, Police and Crime Commissioners, some local councils and the European Union referendum all taking place in 2016, voters across the UK will be going to the polls more often than usual this year.
Or will they?
Last year saw a 66.1% turnout for the UK General Election. At the time, this was headlined as a “bumper election turnout”. But the figure was considerably lower than the highest ever turnout at a general election – 83.9% in 1950. Turnout for local and European elections has been even lower than for general elections, and in 2012 the first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England saw just 15% of the population voting.
Voter registration: falling numbers, rising concerns
In 2014, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee expressed alarm at declining levels of voter engagement, and was particularly concerned about voter registration:
“Millions of people are missing from the UK’s electoral registers. Many of those who are registered—and in many cases the majority—choose not to participate at elections, be they for the UK Parliament, local government, or the European Parliament. In a modern democracy, it is unacceptable that millions of people who are eligible to vote are missing from electoral registers.”
For some years, concerns have been raised about electoral fraud, leading to calls for changes in voter registration to improve confidence in the electoral register. To address these concerns, in 2014 Individual Electoral Registration (IER) went live in England, Wales and Scotland.
Prior to IER, one person in every household took responsibility for registering everyone else living at that address. Under the new system, every individual applying to register needs to provide “identifying information”, such as a national insurance number, and this must be verified before the application is accepted.
The early impact of IER
Although IER has the potential to make electoral registration more accessible to more people, critics have voiced concerns, claiming that it is too complex and may disenfranchise thousands of voters.
In February 2016, UK government figures showed a 600,000 drop in the number of registered voters over the past year (a fall of 1.4 million names since 2014). Commenting on the figures, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:
“The fall in the number of registered voters over the past two years shows the danger of the government’s decision to push through the shift to individual electoral registration a year ahead of schedule, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. With elections all over the country in just three months, far too many people are now in danger of missing out on their most basic civic right.”
Meanwhile, the National Records of Scotland reported that the number of people registered to vote in elections in Scotland had fallen by around 100,000 (2.5%) compared to March 2, 2015. The reductions are the first for more than a decade and much bigger than previous movements in the figures, but they echo a similar decline in Northern Ireland when IER was introduced in 2002.
Inequalities in registration
Many of those contributing to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s investigation argued that the biggest issue for voter engagement was not low levels of voter registration in the general population, but specifically among certain demographic groups, notably:
- students and younger people (under 35)
- people living in the private rented sector
- certain Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups
- people with disabilities
- British citizens living abroad
- Commonwealth and EU citizens
- those classified as social grade DE (working class / non-working)
The Committee published recommendations aimed at raising the levels of registration and reducing inequalities:
- make registration automatic
- prompt people to register to vote when they access other public services (such as registering to pay council tax, or applying for a passport)
- allow students to register at schools and colleges.
- let people register to vote closer to the date of an election (rather than the current limit of 11 days before polling day)
Automatic voter registration: an international perspective
In the United States, declining voter registration and turnout rates have been causing similar concerns to those raised in the UK, and some states have been looking at automatic registration of voters.
In 2015, Oregon and California became the first US states to automatically register any citizen with a driving licence. Not everyone agrees with the change, with some legislators claiming that it replaces “individual convenience with government coercion”.
There’s no suggestion that compulsory registration in US states will lead to mandatory voting. But in Australia it is compulsory for citizens both to enrol and to vote in national, state and local elections. Penalties for not complying can include fines and prison sentences. As a result, turnout figures for federal elections since 1946 have averaged 94%. Australia is one of 23 countries with some form of compulsory registration and /or voting, including France and Sweden (both of which have relatively high election turnout figures).
A work in progress
A notable exception to the trend in declining voting figures in the UK was the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, which saw a historic turnout of 84.6%. However, a post-referendum survey found that, although 16- and 17- year olds were eligible to vote for the first time, turnout among younger people was markedly lower than for those aged 35 and over.
There appears to be no quick fix to address voter engagement in terms of registration rates, inequalities of registration and declining turnout figures. But, as the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee noted, democracy is a work in progress:
“…substantial cultural and structural changes are necessary to convince the public that registering to vote and participating at other elections is worthwhile. This work must go hand in hand with renewing the public’s faith in the UK’s political institutions. This is a task that requires the support of political parties, individual politicians, electoral administrators and the Government.”
By James Carson, Idox