Policy Analysis: Automatic Voter Registration


By Director Of Operations Henry Davies

Here at TalkPolitics, we’ve launched our #OptInToOptOut campaign for automatic voter registration. This isn’t the sexy politics that wins elections, but it’s sensible policy that removes unnecessary barriers to democracy. So, let’s take a no-nonsense look at how this policy could work.

How would it work?

Everyone that is eligible to vote would be added to the electoral register before they turned 18 years old. This would be done at least one month before their 18th birthday, to allow time to process their details before elections that could fall soon after their birthday. If there is an election in which they are allowed to vote before they are 18 (e.g. Scottish local elections have a voting age of 16), citizens would have to register themselves.

This would be a very similar process to receiving your National Insurance Number. With a little inter-departmental practice, a citizen could even receive confirmation of registration, as well as information on how to opt-out, in the same envelope as their NI Number.

Obviously, there are some sensitive issues with people having their details on the public record. That is why TalkPolitics is advocating for an “opt-out” system, whereby anyone can choose (before or after they have been added) to not be on the register through a simple online or paper form.

Regarding the question of address changes; citizens would be registered to the address that they currently live in – any changes would still have to be reported by citizens themselves. The process would differ slightly for students, with a method of adding their term-time address to the register. With the extra time that electoral officers would have, more work could be done on raising awareness that students can vote in both of their home and term-time local elections or either for general elections.

Has it been done anywhere else?

  • In the USA, eight states and the District of Columbia have approved automatic registration, with another 32 submitting proposals this year.
  • In Victoria, Australia (which has a population of around 3.5m) they use an automatic register. They employ only about five people to handle this register, with a 95% accuracy rate.
  • Last year, Greater Manchester began developing an automatic registration scheme, submitting their proposal to the Cabinet Office. The results of the pilot are yet to be published.

Won’t it be difficult?

Of course, the initial adoption of this policy will take some work. There are currently around 6.5 million people that should be on the register, but aren’t. Those people will have to be added to the register, but as for the people already on it, nothing will have to be done. After that, as demonstrated by the likes of Victoria, this system becomes incredibly cheap. With a bit of interdepartmental information sharing, the process of being added to the electoral register will be as easy as getting your National Insurance number. This is a one-time effort for a much easier system in the long-run.

Why is it even important?

You don’t have to register to pay tax, so why should you have to register to vote? The entire process is just an unnecessary barrier to democracy. It might not drastically increase turnout, but it will;

  • Be a much less costly way to maintain the register, as demonstrated by Victoria in Australia. Local councils, which currently hold the responsibility for updating the register, spend millions of pounds on the task as it currently stands.
  • Ensure that the 6.5 million people that are missing from the electoral register will be added.
  • Be more convenient for all citizens, ending the confusion of whether people are on the register.
  • Create a more accurate and up-to-date register that consists of high-quality data that could be shared with other government agencies.

Something that is also worth mentioning is that one thing automatic registration will not do is force people to vote. Just because someone is on the electoral register, does not mean they have to vote, and there are bound to be many who will still choose not to. However, it will mean that people who decide to vote, even just days before an election, will be allowed to exercise their democratic right to select their representatives.

What’s next?

TalkPolitics can’t do this alone. We need your help to make our goals achievable. So far, Louise Haigh and Caroline Lucas have both endorsed our campaign, and as soon as the House of Commons’ Petitions Committee is formed (which unfortunately won’t be until September), TalkPolitics will be launching a petition to Parliament. Keep an eye out for updates on that front. In the meantime, to support our campaign you can contact your MP to ask for their support. To help, we’ve created a sample email that you can customise, as well as a pledge card to attach to your email.

Help us take down the barriers to democracy. Let’s #OptInToOptOut.

Sample email:

Dear [your MP’s name here],

I am writing to you to ask you to support the TalkPolitics campaign for an ‘opt-out’ electoral register. This would mean automatically registering citizens before their 18th birthday. In the UK, there are approximately 6.5 million people missing from the electoral register.

A report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in 2014 (HC 232 2014-15) reaffirmed its view that “voters should ideally be registered to vote automatically”. This system is used in a number of Nordic countries, and has had a notable effect in Denmark.

In 2016, Louise Haigh MP outlined a number of benefits of an opt-out register, including;

  • A more complete register.
  • The end of peaks and troughs of registration.
  • Less confusion about whether people are on the register.
  • The system would be significantly cheaper than the current one, as demonstrated by the example of the state of Victoria in Australia (which has a population of 3.5m and maintains their automatic register at an extremely low cost, employing just five members of staff to maintain it).
  • It would be more convenient for citizens.
  • It would almost certainly be more up-to-date.
  • It would provide high-quality data that could be used by and shared with other agencies.

There are obviously obstacles to automatic registration, but let’s stop sitting around. It’s time to commit to finding the “missing millions”. Please make a commitment to supporting an opt-out register, for a better, fairer democracy. For more information about the TalkPolitics campaign, head over here for details.

Attached, you’ll find a graphic that you can share on your social media pages to let your followers know that you’re supporting this crucial campaign.

I look forward to hearing back from you.

All the best,

[Please put your full name and address here – many MP’s will only deal with your request if you’re a member of their constituency, so it’s important you send this to your own MP. You can find out who your MP is, by going to the Parliament website at http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/ and entering your postcode.]

Image rights: RachelH_ @ Flickr

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