Recent figures suggest nearly one million people – many of them university students – have fallen off the voters’ register over the past year. With a general election looming, this is an alarming statistic, which initiatives like Bite the Ballot’s National Voter Registration Day are trying to address.
This decline is primarily a consequence of a recent reform to registration processes. In summer 2014, the previous system of Household Registration was replaced by Individual Electoral Registration. Under the old system, voters were registered on a household basis, while under the new one, every individual is responsible for his or her own registration.
As part of the transition, the household-based register is being checked against data from the Department for Work and Pensions. People whose identities can be verified are automatically transitioned into individual registration. This approach disproportionately impacts young people – particularly those living away from home – as they are more mobile and less likely to have a sufficient record to enable automatic transition.
This is not to say that individual registration is an unnecessary or inappropriate reform. Household registration, where the “head of the household” is responsible for the registration of those under his or her roof, is an archaic, 19th century mechanism. It is open to abuse, and inappropriate for any nation that wishes to deem itself a modern democracy.
A half-baked plan
Yet the new system is only a half-step, and its limitations were predicted. Now that there are almost one million fewer voters registered, it appears manifestly inadequate.
Maximising registration is vital. The legitimacy of government – and of democracy as an ideal – is founded upon broad electoral participation. Yet participation is highly responsive to the demands made of voters: the higher the hurdles to participation, the less likely voters are to register and show up on election day.
Politicians are not fools – they operate in full knowledge of electoral realities, and policy outcomes reflect this. If young people do not participate, their interests are not reflected in policy, and political outcomes cannot be said to be a true reflection of the will of the people. Put simply, if you don’t vote, you don’t count.
While policy plays a key role, the state and the political parties are evidently failing to engage voters and motivate participation. Where the state makes a demand of its citizens, it also has a responsibility to ease the process of meeting that obligation. For instance, pay-as-you-earn taxation, National Insurance and pension contributions are deducted from taxpayers’ income on a regular basis, instead of the government demanding lump sums at the end of the financial year.
Even so, the responsibility for declining participation is shared. Given that compliance with registration officers is a legally mandated obligation, the unregistered must also bear some responsibility for their status.
The Australian precedent
Australia also faces the challenge of low and declining youth registration, despite the fact that voting is compulsory there. In response, the government advanced the policy of Direct Enrolment, which granted the state the capacity to initiate the process of registration, without the consent or input of the voter.
Based on shared data from trusted government sources – particularly those dealing with matters of tax, education, welfare and driver licencing – the Australian Electoral Commission is now able to both register voters, and update their registration when it becomes aware that they have changed address.
Such an approach is not unprecedented in the UK. The use of Department of Work and Pensions information has served to smooth the transition from household to individual registration. Yet the system could take inspiration from Direct Enrolment by employing information from a broader range of government departments and educational institutions, with a particular focus on registering the young in the first place.
However, the impetus for any further reform must come from the parliament, and the present government has no great disagreement with the status quo. Young people display different patterns in voting, just as they do in registration.
Recent polling of potential first time voters shows Labour holding a 15-point lead over the Conservatives (41% to 26%), as well as markedly high support for the Greens (19%), with just 6% supporting the Liberal Democrats and a mere 3% intending to vote for UKIP. These figures suggest a clear disincentive to action for the current government.
Such was the case in Australia. As with the UK, young Australians do not presently favour conservative parties. Consequently, despite support from electoral administrators, political scientists and significant segments of the parliament, Direct Enrolment made no headway until a generational change in government brought the Australian Labour Party to power in 2007.
Given this reality, and the short period until the election, we can expect little aid for young voters. It will be up to them, and to the parties who hope to benefit from their input, to maximise registration. The continued modernisation of the UK’s electoral system may well depend on their success.