Introduction

“One in three young people are not registered to vote”, according to the Electoral Commission in November 2019. This raises the question: should we be doing more to get more young people and those from other under-represented groups on the electoral register? Toby James and Paul Bernal at the University of East Anglia address this question in their report Is it time for automatic voter registration in the UK? They open with a quote from Andrew Bowie MP, arguing that voting needs to be as “accessible and convenient as could be to all citizens” to make this “essential part of the democratic process” fit for purpose for the 21st century. So where does the UK stand in this regard, and how could the system be improved?

Where We Are Now

The UK, along with a handful of other countries including the USA, Ireland and New Zealand, uses a particularly hands off approach – what the authors term a ‘laissez faire’ system – of voter registration, where citizens are required to actively register to vote by a set deadline before an election. A more active approach, practised in most countries, automatically puts citizens on the electoral roll once they reach voting age, with no action required on their part. A third system known as assisted voter registration is used in some parts of Australia, Canada and the US, which encourages citizens to register when accessing government services, and aims to enfranchise those in under-represented groups (such as young and BAME citizens).

Voting is such an entrenched right, a fundamental aspect of citizenship, that people in the UK often assume they are automatically on the electoral register. The report explains that there are sadly growing numbers missing from it, along with a large number of incorrect registrations which leads to voters being turned away from polling stations – such as 18 year old Ellis Bennett in Liverpool who was turned away during the 2019 general election despite believing he had registered.

Registration rates are in decline, and confusion over the process is often cited as the main reason for not voting at all. This democratic shortfall is a key driving force behind a growing demand for automatic voter registration. In November 2019, an Independent article cited figures from the Electoral Commission estimating up to 9.4 million eligible voters were missing from electoral roll, and that they had found evidence of 'overwhelming support' for automatic voter registration. The UEA report confirms that those aged over 65 are 69% more likely to be registered to vote than those aged 16-17, and also cites some more troubling statistics, such as white people being approximately 10% more likely to be registered than those from Black or Asian communities.

The shifting political landscape of the last few years has brought further discussion of the issue. Differing attitudes between the generations means that young people voting in higher numbers could make huge differences to the political makeup of parliament. Brexit was a major factor in the politicisation of young people in the UK – polling estimates approximately 75% of under 25s voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. In the 2019 General Election polling suggests 56% of 18-24 year olds voted Labour compared to 21% for the Conservative Party, but those figures are almost exactly reversed for the 60-65 age category. In the end, exit polls suggested older people voted in greater numbers than younger people, and if the voter registration system played a role in this, that provides a good reason, in the minds of the report’s authors, for change.

Automatic For The People?

All of this shows the need to make the electoral register more representative of the country as a whole, to increase political equality (especially with respect to young people) and legitimise the entire election process. Automatic voter registration (AVR) may well be the way to achieve this, but there are of course a number of arguments for and against its adoption, as outlined in the UEA report.

Those in favour argue that voting is a positive thing, a core tenet of citizenship, and therefore should be as easy for people to take part in as possible, in keeping with Andrew Bowie’s view. James and Bernal found that an estimated 700,000 people would be added to the electoral role by registering them when they receive a national insurance number, and that greater civic education would better prepare these new voters to make informed decisions at the polls. Assisted voter registration could also add many millions of people to the system (just think of the 6.5 million who apply for a passport or the 4 million registered through driving tests). The proposal to directly enrol people from under-represented groups is likely to prove popular as well. It would also be more efficient, as last-minute registrations cause considerable ‘administrative strain’ – even crashing the voter registration website in the case of the 2016 referendum – while direct registration would be cheaper and easier. Inefficiency could be curtailed by an online portal to check voting status and reduce duplicate registrations, along with the relaxation of constraints on anonymous registration to better protect vulnerable adults, as recommended by James and Bernal.

On the other side of the argument, there is the question of individual responsibility and personal liberty for citizens in choosing to register themselves. Similarly, the likely need for ID cards to implement AVR risks curtailing civil liberties and initiating a ‘papers please’ culture, requiring people to “prove their entitlement to what should be available to all without question.” The lack of a central population registry would make it harder to implement for the UK than other countries, though James and Bernal recommend using the Department for Work and Pensions customer information system as a single, centralised national electoral register.

In fact, they argue there are more civil liberties problems with the current system, because it includes an open register which can be purchased by anybody. Services like 192.com offer background information on voters to third parties which can be combined with data captured from users’ online presence, presenting a major data privacy concern which could be exacerbated by potentially weakened GDPR legislation post-Brexit.

Moving Forward

Whether or not we adopt AVR, there is clearly a need to improve the administration of voter registration in the UK. Sadly this is not something that seems to be particularly high on the legislative agenda right now. In the context of COVID 19, SNP MP Martyn Day recently raised several questions in parliament about AVR, lowering voting age, missing voters and the effect of coronavirus restrictions on levels of registration. The response from the Cabinet Office was that there are no plans to either introduce AVR or reduce voting age, and that the government holds no data on those eligible, but not registered to vote.

There’s a bit more interest from the judiciary however; The Law Commission looked into modernising electoral law as part of their 13th programme of reform, and in March 2020 reported that the UK’s electoral laws were “out-dated, confusing and not fit for purpose.” They called for many aspects of the system to be improved and consolidated, including the adoption of a single electoral register, which would “show which elections an individual is entitled to vote at.”

Despite the large number of young people not registered to vote, we have seen that many want to engage with politics and have an impact on the democratic process. Automatic voter registration, in combination with enhanced citizenship education for all, could produce a highly effective and legitimate electorate for the future.

Suggested Next Steps

If you work with young people and would like more information and guidance on discussing the above issues, you may find the following Young Citizens resources helpful:

GoGivers

SmartLaw

Further Reading – External Sources