Why the British election should be more like a student ballot

Students can vote to start an election all over again. Peter Spooner, CC BY-SA

Wednesday April 15 is Democracy Day. It’s the start of the final coordinated push before the 2015 voter registration deadline on April 20.

It was organised, like February’s National Voter Registration Day, by Bite the Ballot, a not-for-profit community movement that aims to encourage young people in particular to reject Russell Brand’s baleful “stop voting” gospel and make their votes count.

Currently, its volunteer members, like those of numerous other non-partisan organisations, are working their socks off – partly to save the face of the government and the Electoral Commission.

The commission reported in February that an estimated 920,000 voters had “disappeared” from the electoral register since the registration process was changed last year. While one household member could previously register everyone living there, each person is now responsible for registering themselves.

It was a tantalising number, which alarmists quickly interpreted to suggest there would be a “million missing voters” from the 2015 election.

But they were largely wrong. At the time of the announcement, there were still weeks until the registration deadline. You can track daily numbers on the Cabinet Office’s gov.uk dashboard, which shows that 750,000 new registrations have been logged in April alone.

A main reason for bringing in individual registration was to clean up registers and remove duplicate entries. So some “missing” voters are not actually missing at all.

The big qualification, though, is that the most common duplicates were students. Although this group is of course only allowed a single general election vote, students were previously entitled to register twice – at their home and at their university or college address.

Some were no doubt copied onto the new register at their home address, and, in the absence until recently of much voter registration publicity, hadn’t yet registered at their term-time address.

It’s here, I’d suggest, government bodies have been remiss. They’ve known for five years when this election would happen and and that the voter registration deadline would fall over the Easter vacation period. Yet for months they left all the hard work to others – councils, political parties, Bite the Ballot and similar campaign groups, universities, colleges and schools.

Texting Ron, to see when his manifesto is coming out. Author provided

Eventually, those missing-million headlines, though misleading, spooked them. Over Easter, therefore, they’ve been trying to coax college authorities and student unions into organising campus registration events and sign-up sessions. All this for a student population that is largely absent from campuses for the holidays and may not return until after the registration deadline.

It is embarrassing for the government that it has failed to explain to young people that they need to register to vote. But the bigger problem is not lack of motivation to register, but to vote. We know from the Scottish independence referendum that young people, if they see some point in it, will vote almost as readily as the rest of us.

They’ll far more readily, though, stay away from the polling booth. And in recent elections, huge numbers have seen no point whatsoever in turning up. The selection of party candidates seemingly inhabiting a different world from them, their limited spectrum of policies and self-serving practices, and the irrelevance and apparent corruption of the whole party-dominated parliamentary system are all a turnoff for this group of voters.

So here’s my suggested deal. In recognition of students’ help in saving the government’s face over a mishandled registration campaign, let’s learn from their way of doing elections.

Almost all student elections have two features which our national and local elections generally don’t. They have a transferable vote system – which means if your first-preference candidate has no chance of election or has already exceeded their vote quota, you can transfer your vote to your second or third-preference candidate. It gives you more stake in the election and ensures far fewer votes are wasted than in the UK’s first-past-the-post system.

But if you don’t have a second or third – or even a first – preference, you can always vote for RON – standing for “re-open nominations”. And if, as occasionally happens, RON wins, then nominations are indeed re-opened and the election is re-run.

It’s a positive abstention, similar to NOTA – None Of The Above: an option that any democratic system should logically incorporate. With an alternative like RON, a voter can express their withholding of consent rather than merely abstaining or spoiling their ballot.

Numerous countries – including France, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, and most recently India – already offer voters either a NOTA or RON option or the equivalent, and the idea is finally being taken seriously here too.

A NOTA option was advocated recently by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, as easily the top choice in its survey of proposals for increasing voter engagement.

NOTA or RON: they’re not the most intellectual electoral reforms, but I’d bet they’d add a few percentage points to next month’s turnout.