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Voter registration ‘should be joined up with public services’

20/07/17

Report from Electoral Commission calls for more progress in using data to make it easier to apply to vote and to reduce duplication across different constituencies

Electoral registration in the UK should be integrated with other online public services, according to the Electoral Commission.

It has highlighted the issue in its report on the recent general election, saying the growth of online public services should make the registration process easier for the public and electoral registration officers (EROs).

The report says there is a potential for automatic registration, as already happens in Australia, Canada and some US states, or simultaneous registration when applying for other services.

“We believe it is time for the UK to evolve the current system, which relies solely on electors taking steps to register themselves, to make electoral registration more joined up with other public services,” it says. “This means considering direct or automatic enrolment processes which have the potential to deliver more accurate and complete electoral registers more efficiency than current resource-intensive canvas processes.”

Various factors are encouraging the potential, including work done by some EROs to integrate electoral registration applications with student enrolment processes. Also, the recently passed Digital Economy Act includes provisions to make it easier for public bodies to share data to improve the delivery of services.

Duplication problem

The report points to other issues around the use of data in the process, highlighting the problem of duplicate registrations, in which a person might be registered to vote in different constituencies and EROs have no way of checking. Although this is technically illegal there are worries that it is a significant issue among students and transient groups.

It says there should be an effort to explore possible solutions to identify duplicate registrations. While it makes no specific reference to a new digital system the most likely approach would be through an online data matching exercise.

It also says that voters need an online route to check on whether they are registered to take part in elections. EROS have reported that they spend a lot of time and effort checking on applications of people who are already on the electoral system to reduce the number of applications.

The existing online system does not allow people to check on whether they are on their local register, and the report says there is a need for functions on systems such as those in Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland that enables them to check before submitting an application.

Sir John Holmes headshotSir John Holmes, chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “The size of the registered electorate for the general election demonstrates the UK’s strong tradition of democratic engagement, and reflects the hard work of all concerned.

“However, if we are to keep pace with modern habits and practice in a digital world, the electoral registration system must continue to evolve, and consider innovative solutions such as direct or automatic enrolment processes. These have the potential to deliver significant improvements to the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers as well as efficiencies for local authorities and the public purse.”

Online effect

The report says that online registrations have had a major effect on elections in Great Britain, highlighted by the fact that 96% of the late applications to vote in the recent general election – those made between its announcement on 18 April and deadline on 22 May – went through the online portal on GOV.UK.

It also points to a generational difference, with 69% of online applications coming from people aged under 34, while just 8% were from over 55s.

One of its recommendations is that online registration should be extended to Northern Ireland as soon as possible. The relevant legislation has already been passed, but efforts to get the technology in place have run into difficulties and it is unlikely to be possible before autumn of this year.

Image from Electoral Commission, Open Government Licence v3.0

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