Change needed on voter registration before next general election

June’s general election saw the largest ever electorate for a UK-wide poll with an estimated 46.8 million people registered to vote. The public’s willingness to engage in democracy is both clear and encouraging, but the system which supports voter registration now needs further modernisation to keep up with voters’ expectations.

Being able to register to vote online continues to be an incredibly popular service for people in Great Britain. We found that 96% of all applications were made online. But online registration still doesn’t exist in Northern Ireland. We believe that this service needs to be made available across the whole of the UK as soon as possible.

Our report makes a number of further recommendations to modernise the electoral registration system. Data that we have analysed confirms that a significant proportion of applications made during the campaign were duplicates – that is, the applicant was already registered to vote at the address stated on the application. You might wonder why this matters – but the huge number of these duplicate applications required significant input of resources by local authority staff at an already busy time.

So we want to work with the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments; and Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) across the UK to identify ways to reduce the number and administrative impact of duplicate applications as a priority. We think there needs to be a review of the messaging in public awareness campaign activities and on government and other websites signposting to the online registration service; and an improvement to the wording on the online registration service to remind applicants that they may not need to apply again.

We also want to work with the UK’s governments to incorporate more automatic checks into the online application service to highlight if someone has already submitted an application. We received lots of feedback from EROs and electors themselves that it would be helpful if it were possible for the online registration system to check whether people are already correctly registered to vote. Online check facilities are already offered to voters in other comparable democracies, including Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, as seen below.

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But our recommendations aren’t just about cutting down on those duplicate applications and reducing waste – they are also about reflecting the way people live their lives today and making registering to vote even quicker and easier. We believe that the growing availability of online channels to access a range of services presents opportunities in this area. Some of the options that we think should be considered are improving opportunities for giving EROs access to data from other public service providers; enabling people to register to vote when using other online public services (for example when applying for a driving licence or passport); and exploring how a more integrated approach to electoral registration could feature automatic or direct enrolment processes.

The size of the registered electorate for June’s general election demonstrates that the UK’s strong tradition of democratic engagement hasn’t gone away, 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. There is 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.

If you would like to know more about our recommendations see our full report here. We’ll be producing further reports about the administration of the election in the autumn.

Mark Williams, Policy Manager

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