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Changes to voter registration sparks political row

11/11/19

Parliamentary Correspondent

A decision to use data matching and digital messages to partially replace the annual canvassing of every home to sign up voters has triggered a political row.

Polling station sign

The controversy blew up after ministers of the outgoing Government quietly approved a statutory instrument that removed a requirement on councils to canvass all homes every year, including by household visits if there is no response to letters.

Instead it has given them the option to use digital means to contact people or not chase up at all if data matching indicates there is no need.

The Labour Party hit out at the change being “sneaked though” Parliament in its dying days before the election, warning that people from poorer backgrounds will drop off the electoral rolls.

The change affects the process by which local electoral registration officers follow up on households that have not returned the annual electoral enquiry form. They can check their own councils’ data, such as council tax and housing benefits, and the Department for Work and Pensions’ Customer Information System to check whether any voters have apparently moved in or out of individual households over the past year.

If a ‘green match’ indicates there has been no change from the previous year a council can take a light touch approach, with the option not to chase up any non-responses and assume the same voters remain at the address.

If a ‘red match’ suggests there has been a change the council will have to send two further reminders, which can now be by “by email, SMS text, telephone, in person or electronically through a council account”. This can lead to people being added to or removed from the electoral register.

Claim of support

The Government policy statement on canvass reform says: “The success of the digital service and online registration shows that there is clear public acceptance of moving to more a digital approach which is largely prohibited by the current process.”

But the Labour Party has protested that the change was voted through after the election was called, despite the Electoral Commission concluding that trials had shown it was not ready to be put in practice.

It claimed that the Cabinet Office’s own evaluation found there was a risk of people being “ostracised” if they were “less IT literate” and of some potential voters being missed.

“There is a real risk that the proposed reform will have a detrimental impact on the accuracy of the register, particularly for under-represented groups,” said Cat Smith, the party’s voter engagement spokeswoman

“This is a very significant and complicated piece of legislation that requires proper scrutiny and shouldn’t be rushed through days before we embark on a general election campaign.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We have been working with the electoral community for four years to modernise the annual canvass - this included a public consultation where the feedback was overwhelmingly in favour of our proposals.

Image from iStock, Tyler Arabas

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