Registering a problem

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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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6 Comments on “Registering a problem”

  1. DSO Says:

    I’ve been out canvassing many times and it is exactly as you have described. Also, a lot of the households which need a visit are those who are least inclined to want to vote and you have to put up with a huge amount of abuse (usually verbal, but I’ve been chased down the street once – the last time I did the canvass) about “the council”, a faceless monolith which evidently is the source of all this person’s problems.

    Personal experiences aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that a better carrot to encourage registration, as opposed to the stick of a £1000 fine which everyone knows is almost never imposed, would be to require a person to be on the electoral register in order to own a credit card. Are there more people with TV licences than on the electoral register? Why not team up with TV licensing and say you need to be on the register to get your TV licence (because TV licensing’s adverts suggest that they have über-RIPA powers to find out if you’re watching TV without a licence). Need a passport? Be on the electoral register. Driver’s licence? Electoral register.

    All of these require you to show proof of address and what better proof of address than the electoral register? If you make it essential to be on the electoral register in order to have many other things considered essential, the opt-in rate will soar, and local councils can work with other public organisations to keep their lists updated.

    Now that that’s solved, all that remains is figuring out how to turn all the registered people into voters?

  2. Jon Harvey Says:

    I also understand that people will be required to submit their Nationa Insurance number also – a provision that will surely incentivise people to register…

  3. Mark City Says:

    You’re looking at this entirely the wrong way. If people see no value in something then they will make little effort. The fact is over successive decades local government has moved away from being representatives of their local communities, to being nothing more than an implementer of central government decisions or they ignore the wishes of their communities. Councils continuously fail to tackle big problems, instead going after easy/soft targets. So what’s the point in voting? where councils have been given more powers they either whinge that they want more or are incapable of enacting effectively. Similarly with MPs, they are now so distrusted by the public, all brought on by themselves, that it’s little wonder people do not see any value in voting. Compelling people to going the electoral register – and even worse compelling people to vote – is a sign of democratic failure. There will also be a proportion of the population that will never want to sign up to anything, but a drop in registration should be seen as symptomatic of much bigger problems with local and central government that dismissing it as people cannot be bother because they are watching Eastenders.

  4. Andrew Says:

    The ones who will register will be those who have always registered without complaint – which I suspect will tend to be the better off middle class types (such as yours truly). Those who don’t register will have a shock on polling day (“What do you mean I carn’t vote!) and be even more peed off with ‘the system’. Then what do they do – riot? IF we don’t make it easy at the most basic level to give people a chance to be engaged by getting them the power (not just he right) to vote the rest won’t follow.

  5. Will Says:

    One of the knock on effects of not registering is difficulty in accessing credit. Individuals can use their electoral record to prove to credit checkers and banks that they do live somewhere. This provides a motivation for going on the roll. If people aren’t aware of this it may reduce peoples access to credit.

    With increasing amounts of people in rented and shared accomodation with have a more transient population. I think the changes in electoral registration may have an inpact on people going on the roll and even lower turnouts.

  6. We already have enough of a problem with rare voters just turning up on a blue moon expecting to be able to vote (I want to vote for Ed Milliband! – Sorry, you can’t you don’t live in Doncaster. – How dare you, I demand my right to vote for Ed Milliband! – Sorry, you can only vote for one of the candidates here in Chesterfield – Bloody Council, stealing my right to vote)
    If people have to *chose* to register and then *chose* to notice there’s an election on and then *chose* to vote and on top of that realise they have to vote for a local candidate, and not the Prime Minister or the Council Leader, turnout amongst the habitual non-voters will just keep plummeting.

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