Sunday, June 10, 2012
We All Need To Count
This is my submission to Labour's Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities Commission.
In his speech to Progress three weeks ago, Ed Miliband said that Labour "will embark on the biggest drive to register new voters in a generation". This is a welcome commitment, but if such a campaign is limited to the period up to the next General Election, it will be unlikely to overcome the massive problems associated with electoral registration in the UK. We also need a policy commitment to say that Labour will tackle registration problems once elected, by introducing the necessary legislation.
The size and nature of the problem surrounding electoral registration has been revealed in a recent report by the Electoral Commission. They show that at least 6 million people are currently missing from electoral registers, with only 56% of 19-24 year olds being covered, and with the same low percentage for those in private rented accommodation. The major shortfalls in electoral registration occur amongst the young, the rootless, ethnic minorities and the poor. This has a knock on effect in distorting the shape and size of parliamentary constituencies, so that the most deprived areas in the UK are seriously unrepresented in parliament. The move from household to individual electoral registration is likely to add significantly to the numbers missing from registers, thereby worsening the current pattern.
What can be done to tackle such problems? First of all, we need to consider who should have the vote, and why. As the vote should be considered to be a fundamental human right, it should go to all of those who have established residency in the UK. For all residents should have a say in what laws, regulations and taxation regimes they operate under. The only exceptions to such an arrangement, should be (1) the exclusion from electoral registers of those who are incapable of exercising voting rights due to serious mental incapacity, and (2) those (owing to their age alone) who have not yet reached sufficient maturity. As it would be open to manipulation to employ tests as to when a person was mature enough to vote, an arbitrary age needs to be employed to decide when people will first qualify to vote. For reasons I give later, I suggest that the qualifying date for obtaining the vote should be a person's sixteenth birthday.
Under the above proposals, the current franchise would then be extended to (a) sixteen and seventeen year olds, (b) residents in this country from overseas (at this moment this right is restricted to those who come from Commonwealth Nations and from the Republic of Ireland) and (c) all prisoners (whose new franchise rights could be related to their previous place of residence).
To ensure everyone who had enfranchisement rights would receive them, numbers of improvements would need to be made to the electoral registration system. First of all, the Government would need to conducted regular advertising campaigns, telling people of their electoral registration rights and duties. Secondly, Returning Officers would have access to records which showed the places of residence of the people living in their areas; including details of residential movements in and out of such areas. Thirdly, a person would only be entitled to register in the place of their sole or main place of residence; with those changing such residence being contacted to ensure they make use of the existing rolling electoral registration provisions which allow them to transfer their voting rights.. Fourthly, the annual canvas by Returning Officers would require canvassers to engage in door to door canvassing, especially of residences where no-one had registered or where there are significant changes since the previous canvas. Finally, canvassers would undertake searches, to ensure that homeless people were registered.
The extra costs incurred by Returning Officers in fulfilling their duties, would come from Central Government Funds. It would be no excuse to say that we can't afford democracy.
A sound reason for giving people votes at sixteen, is that a person's initial registration could take place at school when students were fifteen year-old and were due to attain the vote. Local Returning Officers will need to send canvassers to schools in their area to facilitate the process - passing completed registration forms on to neighbouring Returning Officers where this is necessary.
We need wide-ranging changes to the electoral registration system, to repair the damages to the current system caused by increased social mobility, de-politicalisation, breaks in the social bond and operations of anti-social measures, such as that of the breach caused in the past by Thatcher's Poll Tax.