Electoral processes can’t exist in a vacuum: we must innovate and engage

One of the great things about being Chair of the Electoral Commission is having the opportunity to attend and speak at lots of fascinating events all over the country.  Last month was no exception. I was lucky enough to speak at University College London (UCL) Constitution Unit’s event, ‘Elections, Referendums and Parties’, and the Local Government Association (LGA) Conference in Harrogate as part of a panel discussing the move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER).

At the LGA Conference, I spoke about our views on the current transition to IER.  Having called for this for 10 years, it was finally introduced last year alongside another great innovation: online registration.

I was pleased to be able to tell the audience that our recent report makes clear that the transition is going well so far and, whilst there is more work to do, it has been a great example of central and local government working well together with a key role for the Commission. There was much discussion amongst the panel members about the ways that councillors can encourage people to register to vote, and about what voter registration information they are allowed access to. Some talked about innovative ways to ensure local people are registered – such as encouraging people to register when they come into contact with other council services, while others raised concerns about those not yet registered individually.

There are still 1.9 million entries on the former household registers that have been not yet been carried over to the new individual register and, as we cannot distinguish which of those are eligible electors and which are for people that have gone on to register elsewhere, we believe this presents an unnecessary risk to those people’s ability to participate in future elections.

It was encouraging to hear about some of the engagement work electoral registration officers are doing, but also to listen to suggestions of what further work the Commission can do to help – particularly around communicating clearly with councillors.  Some of the concerns raised mirrored those that the Commission has, and this is why, despite the successful start to IER, we cannot recommend bringing forward the end of the transition from the date set out in the original legislation: December 2016.

Earlier in June, at the Constitution Unit event, I discussed electoral modernisation and our belief that electoral processes can’t exist in a vacuum while technology advances.  The success of online registration has strengthened the arguments for integrating more technology into elections.  We will be leading a piece of work on this over the next few years, along with senior Returning Officers, to make sure we recognise and embrace the improvements that technology provides.

I also explained that, while security concerns means online voting might still be a little way off, there is potential for other advances such as signposting voters from other digital Government services to the online registration site: making it easier than ever for people to be prompted to register.

Finally, I discussed how vital it is to maintain the high levels of trust in our electoral system, which can only be assured if it is robust and not open to abuse.  We feel that the next logical step in strengthening security is through the introduction of ID for polling station voters. Indeed, many voters and international observers of our elections tell us they are surprised that this isn’t already a requirement.  We will be publishing our detailed proposals on how it could work in practice by the end of this year.

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission

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