Comment: Risks to the Register

Most people, in all political parties, believe that the Government are right to bring in individual voter registration. The previous Government legislated for it… I…brought in that legislation. I did so because I believed that it was right…It is right, as a matter of principle, that citizens should be responsible for their own eligibility to vote.” – Lord (Michael) Wills, former Labour Minister for Constitutional Affairs.

“There is a lot of agreement on the move to individual registration, which will improve our system.” – Mark Harper MP, present Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform.

There is a consensus over individual electoral registration, and it is important to reiterate that IER is not about a choice between integrity and completeness; if it is done in the correct way, it can be a means of achieving both.” – Mark Williams MP, Co-Chair, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform.

In light of this rash of consensus, you might think that the transition from household to individual electoral registration might be straightforward.  Yet some Labour Party members have been less considered in their response.  Harriet Harman even claimed at last year’s Labour conference that the proposed change to IER was “a shameful assault on people’s democratic rights”.

On the contrary, it is the present household system that can deny a person the franchise if their a self-appointed ‘head of household’ doesn’t get everyone on the register.  Indeed, recent Electoral Commission research shows that status quo is not only susceptible to fraud but is also increasingly ineffective.  Only 85% or so of those eligible are registered compared with some 92% only a few years ago.  Done right, changing the system could very much improve matters.

Labour now argue that there was cross-party consensus for IER, but only for doing it with ponderous delay.  This, too, is untrue, since we and the Conservatives urged them to get on with it throughout the last Parliament, and before that.

However, there is a key difference between us and the Conservatives on this issue.  Both parties have long thought that the responsibility of registering should rest with individuals, as the first step to participation in democracy.  However, Liberal Democrats are arguing that registration should remain just that – a responsibility.  Many Conservatives, by contrast, believe that it should become a personal lifestyle option.

There is a practical implication to this which is that “voluntary” registration could have a profound effect on the completeness of the register and, by turns, on the availability of credit to transient or disadvantaged people, the capacity of the jury system to maintain ‘trial by your peers’ and the capacity of the Boundary Commissions to draw fair lines between constituencies.  The immediate political implication is that the Labour Party is using it as an excuse to advocate introducing IER very, very slowly.

Liberal Democrats do want to get on with IER but we have made clear in recent parliamentary debates that the present legal duty to comply with the registration process to be maintained.  Clearly, Electoral Registration Officers believe that this obligation is vital to their work since all of them, in our collective experience, put on their forms “By law, you must register every year. You may be fined up to £1000 if you do not reply”.

The good news is that it seems we are making progress in this argument, since the Government is now making positive noises.  Lord (William) Wallace, the Minister responsible for this in the Lords, recently told Peers, “The Government are looking at whether the offence of failing to return the form from the household should be extended to making it an offence for an individual not to register.”  Yes, Minister.  David Heath had similarly strong reassurances in the Commons, “Let us be clear:  the Government believe that there is a civic duty to register”.

The great advantage of pre-legislative scrutiny is that proposals – like the wrongheaded conservative idea to make registration voluntary – can be floated, and then reeled in again, without ignominy for the Minister concerned.

Read the full Lords debate including Chris Rennard’s clear warning that, “I will not support any change that does not satisfactorily preserve a legal requirement to comply with the registration process on everyone who should fill in a form to register to vote” here, the full Commons debate here, and a later Lords Question Time session here (link).

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