Registering a problem
We have remarked many times that local government is a large undertaking and it can be hard to keep up with what is going on in each of the many parts of it. I must admit therefore, that we at WLLG towers have been a little slow on the uptake with a major policy change currently going through our Parliament in Westminster.
As part of a long desired change to our electoral law the coalition are planning to switch the way a person is registered to vote from a household registration to an individual registration.
This, in and of itself, is a good thing.
However, it is the way the change will be implemented that will have the major effect on local government, and the people on the electoral register.
About two months ago I was having lunch (Daily Mail: Local Government workers slack off to have lunch) with a friend of mine who tops up her salary by taking part in the annual canvass (Daily Mail: Local Government workers in overtime shocker). The canvass, roughly speaking, involves the council sending registration forms to every household in the local authority area and then chasing each household in person with door knockers until all of the forms are completed and returned.
This is obviously an expensive undertaking as it involves sending something out to every household in the Borough, providing the means of returning it (we also have online enrolment which I think happens in nearly all authorities) and then providing people on the ground to knock on every door until they are all returned.
I’ve been tempted to volunteer a couple of times but the work is very much payment by results and that can mean carrying out visits to every household that has not completed their forms until they do so just to get paid. It is long, it is always done in the Autumn when the evenings are dark and generally it’s not a great amount of fun.
My colleague, an experienced canvasser, commented that her role might be getting even more difficult over the coming years as the Government were trying to reduce the compulsory element of the registration and then remove the canvass.
Because we were just talking, and it was lunchtime, I totally missed the significance of what she was saying until the electoral commission published a short response to the proposed change arguing:
We believe IER can be introduced in a way to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register is improved. We have however highlighted to Government and Parliament our concern that if the opt-out from registration currently proposed is introduced registration could drop towards election turn-out levels.
Obviously if there is an opt-out from needing to be on the register this makes it more difficult for the local authority, and thus the dedicated canvasser, to compel people to register.
Currently, the canvasser can augment her natural charm and dogged persistence with the threat of a fine (I think it around the £1000 mark). I’ve yet to find anyone who disagrees with the notion that this change will reduce the amount of people registering. This is not necessarily because the threat of a fine is a regular occurrence (a last resort apparently) but because if people can just say ‘no, I don’t want to’ and we have to respect their position a lot of people will do so without necessarily thinking it through.
It’s a cliché but if you are interrupting Eastenders on a Tuesday night when the family are trying to get their kids ready for bed and you have no compulsion in your back pocket people may be more inclined to just say no and ask you not to return.
Alongside this the Government have stated that they would like to:
in the future, if Parliament is satisfied with alternative arrangements to put in its place, an end to the annual canvass as the primary means of maintaining the completeness and accuracy of the register
Doing away with the canvass would save money but do we really believe that the same benefits can be achieved without the face to face contact of a canvasser knocking on a door and explaining why being on the electoral register is important? The more hoops we want people to jump through – and individual registration has more hoops than we currently have – the more we will need someone and something to give people a nudge to jump through them.
I think the Government have got it wrong; twice. Compulsory electoral registration might be expensive but that is the price we pay for proper democracy and in my mind it is a price worth paying.
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