Thursday, October 04, 2007

Why At Least A Million Are Missing From Electoral Registers

Are the BBC Correct?

Today on her blog, Louise Baldock throws doubt upon a BBC claim that a million people will be missing from electoral registers if a General Election is called in the near future. I think that she is mistaken.

She feels that the BBC's claim fails to take account of the system of rolling electoral registration which was introduced under legislation in 2000. This enables people who move, to transfer their registration to their new locality without having to wait for the annual update of the electoral registers.

When I was an MP I was fully involved in the events which led up to the introduction of rolling electoral registers. Jack Staw was the Minister responsible for the Bill and he stated that the measure would probably never have been introduced but for my efforts.

What Is The Problem?

But whilst the rolling register is an improvement, it does not tackle the core of the problem of non-registration. For those already registered, it is essentially a passive system which requires a person who moves to take the initiative in achieving the transfer of their registration. It is possible to imagine a much more pro-active set of arrangements being put in place to ensure this end.

There is, however, a much bigger problem which needs to be tackled about under-registration. Large numbers of people don't register to vote in the first place. So the rolling register does not aid them. This occurs in poorer areas, including those settled by ethic minorities. It is also prevalent in areas where people move about in a rootless way and often depend on bed-sitter accommodation.

Again we need a pro-active system to trace and register the BBC's missing million. Full canvassing by electoral registration officers needs to become the norm. A compulsory Identity Card system could also be constructed in ways to tackle the problem.

It May Be Worse Than The BBC Are Claiming.

When I was an MP, I periodically used the excellent facilities of the Commons Library to gain accurate estimates of the extent (and areas) of under-registration. I no longer have access to this service. But from my past experiences, I feel that the BBC figure of a missing million is likely to be a modest one.

Unfortunately, my efforts to amend the Bill in 2000 to take account of the above factors failed. But until this serious gap in our electoral registration system in filled, we will not have achieved the major objective of the Chartists and the Suffragettes.


Louise Baldock said...

Thanks Harry for your entry and for commenting on my entry.

Thanks too, on behalf of us all, for being the man behind the rolling register - and well done!

I totally accept that it is not the answer for people who dont bother to register but then they probably dont bother to vote either and this debate was about the BBC suggesting that keen and enthusiastic voters who had moved house being denied their vote.

I was explaining that a keen voter would already have sorted themselves out by entering on the register when they moved.

Let's campaign to increase knowledge and awareness of the rolling register as our first step. Then we can work on how to persuade people to get on the register at all.

I blame Mrs T's poll tax, it has had the most terrible legacy.

Harry Barnes said...

Louise; I served on the Committee Stage of the Bill that introduced the Poll Tax into England and Wales and saw what its impact would be upon electoral registration. I then discovered that there were other problems of (a) non-registration in those areas which I previously described, (b) amongst the homeless and (c) in access to polling stations for the disabled. I helped set up a small campaign organisation called "Full Franchise" on these matters (it had my Agent and Research Assistant as its other officers!) I was also into campaigning for Disability Rights. Progress was made in (a),(b) and (c) under Labour. But the tackling of the remaining registration problems could be dealt with on the pattern of various Private Members Bills and amendments to the 2000 Representation of the People's Acts which I pursued. It seems to me that everyone with an entitlement to vote (which I would like to see extended to non-Commonwealth/Irish settlers and those in prison, whilst dropping most overseas ex-pat votes) should be on appropriate registers. Even the keen voters face problems when moving, as registration will not be at the top of their agenda at the time. I think that there are techniques which could get around the main problems. If the rootless are unlikely to vote, their registrations would cover the exceptions and also give us a correct picture of the size of abstentions at elections. Under-registration also effects the drawing of parliamentary boundaries - incidently to Labour's disadvantage.

mrs k said...

I am a longterm postal voter mainly because I was hardly ever in my own constituency as it was solid and we always exported helpers or I worked in London for Trade Unions and was 'loaned out' for elections.

The introduction of all elections in Gateshead being conducted by post - has increased the percentage of those taking part. And, or so I have been told, has increased registration.

However, I have always thought we should introduce the 'Australian' system and fined those that do not vote - unless they have a very good reason. Aussie friends who have been in the UK at the time of an election in Australia had to make sure they either voted at Australia House or posted their vote in time.

The 'fine' was quite hefty if memory serves me right.

Just one thing Harry, disabled access or lack of, has never stopped the disabled from voting - they could have used the postal vote and many did when this was explained to them.

Harry Barnes said...

Mrs K: compulsory voting adds to the case for full registation. To put everyone on an equal footing, the unregistered need to be registered. There is enough information around to trace most of the unregistered and to ensure they are registered. Canvassing for registration also helps - they manage it in Northern Ireland. Otherwise, those not wishing to vote under compulsory voting arrangements might opt for non-registration.

I am also in favour of people voting at their sole or main place of residence, and being registered solely there. Although I can see that they may need postal voting rights if they work or study away from home. Their registation could follow them once they moved to a new sole or main place of residence, given a proper rolling register.

Unless an entire ballot is conducted by post, disabled people should have the choice of voting either by post or at polling stations. They should have a freedom to decide what to do and enjoy the form of access which should be open to them at all public buildings.

I dislike excessive postal voting and uses of new technology, which seem to me to aid electoral fraud. I feel it should be restricted as a right to those who have to be away from home or have difficulties of mobility.