Ministers have been urged to start planning now for 'badly needed' IT changes to prevent a repeat of the computer crash which marred last year’s EU referendum.
The Electoral Commission is calling for an upgrade to allow the hundreds of different voting rolls held by each local authority in the country to “speak to each other”.
The development would allow people to find out easily whether they are registered to vote, as well as enabling checks to ensure someone is not on more than one voting roll.
If that was technically possible, the commission believes, people uncertain if they already registered would be less likely to make last gasp attempts to do so and risk overloading the system.
It was precisely such a surge a demand that crashed the online registration system last year, forcing ministers to – controversially – extend the deadline by 48 hours.
Website users reported a page displaying the message "504 Gateway Time-out", a glitch that lasted from 10.15pm on Tuesday 7 June until after the cut-off at midnight that night.
At that peak time, no fewer than 50,711 people were using the service at the same time. There were 26,000 people on the site just before midnight and 20,416 people just after the deadline.
Uncertain whether those people had successfully registered, the Cabinet Office submitted emergency legislation to allow registration for a further two days – to the anger of some Brexit-supporting MPs.
At a select committee inquiry into the fiasco, Jenny Watson, the commission’s chairwoman, said: “At the moment, each register is held locally so there would need to be some way of having the registers speak to each other or interrogate each other.
“We are aware of how hard it would be to do, but we do think that Cabinet Office needs to pursue this. We would want to play a part in doing it but it must be for them to lead.”
Claire Bassett, the commission’s chief executive, said: “They are held across five different IT systems and they are not joined up.
“The first thing you have to do is find a way of either joining them up or creating a single register so that you can, from one point, access them all to check whether someone is on there.”
Need for password
Bassett suggested that, to create a secure system, a person would need a password in order to email information about themselves and receive a confirmation in return.
“Other parts of the world do it, have systems for doing it and have systems that allow you to crosscheck registers as well to make sure people are not on multiple,” she explained.
Watson added: “Thinking around work around that would need to start now in order to get something in place for a significant set of elections in the future. It is badly needed.”
The commission’s call came at a “lessons learned” inquiry held by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
Image: by secretlondon123 CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons