Local Land and Property Gazetteers, Street Gazetteers and Unique Property Reference Numbers are crucial to voter registrations, writes Steve Brandwood, executive director of engagement at GeoPlace
The recent UK general election provided the latest challenge in an increasingly demanding landscape for electoral registration officers (EROs).
Elections are becoming more complex to manage, with a large transient section of the population – especially people renting from private landlords – uncertainties over the status of many properties, issues around voter identification and concerns of electoral fraud. This also reflects a challenge for councils in knowing the exact status of many properties within their boundaries, and how this affects issues such as council tax collections.
Against this backdrop the EROs in local authorities have to maintain electoral rolls that are as accurate as possible. One of their major assets in approaching this is utilising their own comprehensive property databases, and this is where they benefit from their own local address Custodians and the support of GeoPlace.
GeoPlace manages the infrastructure of the National Address Gazetteer, which holds data supplied by every council in England and Wales from their Local Land and Property Gazetteers. Every address record in these holds a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN) – a unique numeric identifier for each piece of land or property in Great Britain – that provides a single point of reference and guarantees the identity of the address.
Local Address Custodians within councils play a crucial role in maintaining these and providing the local knowledge that feeds into AddressBase, created by GeoPlace and Ordnance Survey to provide up-to-date information on the use of properties and land areas.
This contributes to the electoral process in different ways, with accurate data on the number and distribution of voters ensuring it is all as fairly balanced as possible.
A crucial point is that matching LLPGs with ERO data also helps local authorities to: check on whether addresses are in the correct polling district; ensure that their electoral registers are continuously maintained to a high standard, inviting residents of new streets and properties to register as soon as possible; plan the location of polling stations; confirm the status of empty properties; identify residential properties on the register; and check on whether they match with occupiers on council tax records.
In addition, it provides EROs with a valuable asset to do their jobs effectively. They have the data to verify that people have provided correct information when they register to vote, enabling them to check on whether a genuine residential address has been supplied, if an excessive number of people are registered to vote from there, and whether there are any clues in the addressing data to suggest it is not genuine.
A number of local authorities have reported on benefits they have gained from utilising the data. The electoral services team at Cheshire West and Cheshire Council used it to spot anomalies in the details of properties when people registered to vote. This has helped to identify houses that have been redeveloped without planning permission, or those where the names have been changed without informing the council.
Similarly, at Waltham Forest Council the electoral services team is working with the address Custodian to check on the existence of specific properties, whether they are residential or commercial and how many dwellings they include.
In the 2019 general election, working with its street Custodian, East Riding of Yorkshire was able to correct addressing issues for some polling stations, and coordinated road works to prevent any disruption in the surrounding streets on the day of the election. It also enabled its winter teams to target resources on polling stations that are off their normal treated network.
Leeds City Council used its LLPG to bring together electoral data with council tax to identify properties affected by a review of ward and parish boundaries, then communicated them to the systems that needed to be updated. This helped in checks on properties to ensure they were within the correct boundaries.
The data has also been harnessed for the online voter registration service on GOV.UK, developed by the Government Digital Service. When someone logs in to register their address it matches against the AddressBase data held in the back end, which validates the address is genuine, then combines it with the national insurance number the person provides to validate them as an individual.
The important thing is in having the validation of the person and address at point of application that throws up any discrepancies that might exist. The registration is then sent on their local authority’s ERO for checking and inclusion on the register.
This approach helps to provide more clarity, which in turns does much to support the credibility of our democratic process.
The use of address data in the electoral processes has attracted attention from overseas. GeoPlace was recently invited to take part in a workshop in Malaysia, highlighting the role that robust address data can play in supporting elections.
The initiative was promoted by Bersih 2.0, part of the Malaysian Electoral Commission, which has an eight-point plan that includes cleaning the electoral roll and reforming the country’s postal ballot. It has identified a large number of ‘phantom voters’ that it wants to eliminate and aims to implement an automated voter registration system. In regards to the postal ballot, it wants a system that is transparent and can be monitored by agents of political parties.
The Malaysian Electoral Commission identified the need for a unique address registration system as part of the effort, saying there is still a lack of standardisation with a lot of negative consequences. GeoPlace has been able to contribute the experience of the UK in developing the unique property identifier to overcome the problems in verifying addresses and dealing with the ambiguities that sometimes arise.
Bersih 2.0 has expressed the hope that the workshop will spur the creation of a register to help achieve its plan. It is an example of the UK’s position as a model in the way it manages its elections, and address data is crucial to ensuring the success.
Underlying all this is the fact that high quality address data is at the heart of a lot what local government does, including its roll in staging elections. Local authorities have a responsibility to minimise any threats to the credibility of the electoral process, and this involves their address Custodians providing accurate and timely information to EROs.
Councils need to ensure the resources are available to support the effort, and to maintain one of the prime foundations of our democracy.
Read our blog, Addressing the General Election, to see further examples of how councils use their LLPGs to support electoral services.