The government is considering the possibility of councils compiling electoral rolls from data sources they hold rather than requiring voters to register
A government minister has indicated that voters may no longer be required to register every year as town halls use their own data to check they are legitimate.
Minister for Constitutional Reform John Penrose has suggested the annual canvass to update the electoral rolls is outdated and unnecessary, querying why the process is so “difficult” – in contrast with benefit claims.
During a Commons debate on individual electoral registration (IER), Penrose said: “We should ask ourselves why we ask all those people to re-register every single year, once they have made their individual decision to register to vote.
“We do not ask them to re-register for their tax credits, their TV licence or their benefit claims every single year.”
Penrose said a “large number of local authorities” had told him they were “itching to use” other data they hold to avoid re-registering most voters.
He added: “We could effectively do nine tenths of the annual canvass automatically in a trice just by running some cross-matching between existing databases and the electoral register. We could prove that 90% of people have not moved and are in the same situation.
“We could then focus our annual canvass efforts on the 10% who do not match up and who are causing the problem, on under-represented groups or on places that seem to have empty houses when we know that people are living there.”
The comments came as Penrose strongly defended the controversial decision to complete the switch to IER – which will replace the old system of one person being able to register every voter in a household – in December. This goes against the recommendation of the independent Electoral Commission that the transition should not take place until December 2016, partly because software problems left it unable to spot the areas with most ‘missing’ voters.
The Labour Party argued that “close to a million people would drop off the register as a result, which would be “disastrous”.
But Penrose said he was confident that all “genuine voters with a pulse” would be identified and switched over from the old household register. He insisted: “Then the only entries left will be the people who are no longer there - the people who have moved, died or were never there in the first place because they were fraudulent.”
The minister said that the missing voters – 1.9 million in total – would have been contacted “up to nine times over the past 18 months, in some cases more”.
He added: “They will have had their doors knocked on and their phones rung, and they will have had letters and emails. At the end of that process, the chances of a genuine voter with a pulse who lives in a particular area being disfranchised are vanishingly small.”
Although the Electoral Commission has opposed the plan for a December 2015 switchover to IER, it was supported by the Association of Electoral Administrators, Penrose pointed out.