Big Register is watching you: plans for data matching on voting eligibility
Data-matching by local authorities is the solution to fears that millions will drop off the voting register, a government review has concluded.
Up to two thirds of names already on the electoral rolls can be retained when a controversial switch to individual registration is made, ministers believe.
The conclusions follow a series of data-matching trials run by 22 local authorities last year, including in Camden, Edinburgh and Blackpool.
The councils compared an elector's name and address against other public databases, including those held by the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Department for Education.The studies found that two-thirds of names can be matched, creating a "floor in registration rates".
The Cabinet Office reported: "If an individual's details 'matched,' then they would not have to take any action to remain on the register. This would allow the government to focus efforts and resources on those electors whose details could not be confirmed and those people who are currently not on the register."
The conclusion triggered what the Cabinet Office called "strengthened proposals" for the switch to individual registration, from 2015.
To ensure the register is "as complete and up to date as possible for the transition", the canvass scheduled for autumn 2013 will now take place in spring 2014.
In a statement, Mark Harper, the constitutional reform minister, proposed fining anyone who did not enter their details on the new register. However, he ruled out making it a criminal offence not to do so - even though it is currently a criminal offence for households not to register.
The Electoral Commission had warned this change risked a steep drop in the numbers registered to vote, possibly from 90% to only 65% of the population. Harper said: "Our view is that the evidence is not conclusive that introducing a new criminal offence will make any significant difference to registration levels.
"Nor do we feel it is appropriate we use the threat of a criminal offence to promote greater engagement in the electoral process.
"However, there are arguments for and against introducing a civil penalty for non-response to an invitation to register and some important practical implications to resolve on how such a system could work."
Jenny Watson, chairwoman of the Electoral Commission, gave a cautious welcome, saying: "Many key decisions still need to be made by the government. We will need to give careful thought to how the government's new proposals for using data matching will work. Time is short if the government's target date of 2015 is to be achieved."