Quirinius’ Census or Clegg’s Individual Electoral Registration

Nick Clegg Voter registration may not be the most exciting of subjects, but it has a certain topicality, as we remember a child born of parents travelling a long distance to register, albeit for a census.

An answer from Nick Clegg in the House of Commons on 20 December 2012, during questions to the Deputy Prime Minister, suggests that the Liberal Democrats are not giving much ground on the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER), which was included as a commitment in the Coalition Agreement. This is despite growing criticism that IER will not fix the fall in registered voters, with the Electoral Commission reporting on 14 December 2011 that 6 million voters (or 17.7% of those ordinarily eligible to vote, estimated in April 2011), had disappeared off the Electoral Roll (click here for the report).

I agree with the critics who suggest that the Government’s proposals for IER will not address the problem of missing voters, and that consideration should be given to a legal obligation to register (but see below on reservations). No such requirement exists in the present Representation of the Peoples Act 1983, or is proposed by the Liberal Democrats (as confirmed by Nick Clegg).

I suspect that part of the reluctance citizens have to electoral registration is the secondary use permitted by the 1983 Act (and the Representation of the Peoples (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, for England and Wales), subject to voters’ opt outs, for the electoral roll. Perhaps if the electoral register were maintained upon the basis that its sole use was for electoral registration, subject to voters’ opt in for secondary uses, more would be willing to register. It would certainly place the onus on public authorities to explain and justify their secondary uses.

There is also the question of drawing the boundaries of constituencies by reference to the electorate, being the eligible voters whose names appear on the electoral register (under Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986). If the number of registered voters continues to fall, it will also have a marked effect on the shape of parliamentary constituencies. It is easy to see how claims of gerrymandering therefore surround the Government’s proposals. This is before consideration is made of the use to which the electoral register is put by local and national government for resource and other planning purposes.

If, as many suspect, it will be the marginalised that will drop off the electoral roll with IER, will their needs be recognised in any social security and associated services planning? Or, to round off the Christmas theme, will the lack of social housing planning mean more displaced families end up in stables?

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