Vision for electoral registration: speech by John Penrose

The Minister for Constitutional Reform John Penrose spoke at the Policy Exchange about electoral registration.

John Penrose

Electoral registration is at the same time, mundane and politically contentious.

It’s mundane because, in the end, it’s a vital but rather humdrum piece of electoral plumbing. Most of the time no-one gives it much thought, but we rely on it to work when we turn on the electoral taps.

But it’s contentious too. Because every elected politician, from Barack Obama to the smallest parish councillor, knows it’s vital.

Voters may think you’re the best thing since sliced bread; more popular than Stephen Fry and the Pope combined; but if those voters aren’t registered to vote then it won’t make a blind bit of difference.

The same contrast colours our political debate in Britain today.

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Let’s start by dismissing the nonsense, so we can clear the decks for the important bit in a minute.

Firstly everyone agrees that Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is a good thing in principle because, for the first time, it means we can check ID to make sure someone is legally entitled to vote. It dramatically reduces the risk of electoral fraud, and should prevent any repeat of at least some of the appalling behaviour recently uncovered in Tower Hamlets.

And, after 18 months, we’re pretty much there. 96 out of every 100 voters have had their ID confirmed, and been switched across to the new system. For the last 4 out of 100, we’ve made up to £3 million available to local authorities to finish the job.

By the end of this year, those few remaining voters will have been contacted at least 9 times. By post. By email. By phone. And by people physically knocking on their door. Anybody with a pulse who is legally entitled to vote will have been tracked down, and confirmed on the electoral register.

The only ones left will be ghosts in the machine. Database errors of people who have moved house. Or died. Or who never existed because they were registered fraudulently in places like Tower Hamlets. So arguing, as some do, that real electors are about to be crossed off the register and lose their right to vote, is just silly.

So is suggesting that, after 18 months and 9 or more contacts, we’re going too quickly. These devotees of St Augustine who asked ‘Lord give me chastity and continence, but just not yet’ are following the doctrine of unripe time, which says the moment to do the right thing is always tomorrow, but never today.

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As I said, there’s an important point in here.

What is it?

Well, modern British democracy is missing a lot of voters. Students. BME voters. People in short-term rented accommodation. Expats.

They’re all badly under-represented on the electoral rolls. The worst are expatriates, with a registration rate of less than 5% – 1 in 20 – eligible voters. And regardless of who the missing voters might vote for, I hope every democrat would agree it’s a scandal.

Whole swathes of people who aren’t able to use the democratic rights that, after all, suffragettes were dying for in this country just 100 years ago.

And which people in other countries are still denied today.

This won’t do. I want, and Britain needs, a 21st century register that’s both unimpeachably accurate and as complete as it can be. And there is no trade-off between the 2. Modern technology means we can have both.

That work has already begun: with a modernised online registration process that’s easier and more secure than ever before.

It’s been a big hit with the public, not least because it only takes around 3 minutes to do. So you can register to vote in less time than it takes to boil an egg.

So far, 11 million applications have been under the new system, with over 3-quarters of these made online. 485,000 applications – 96% of them online – were submitted on deadline day at the last election. That’s comparable to all the application forms downloaded across the entire campaign period in 2010.

But’s there’s still much more to do.

It’s part of a wider programme of digital transformation, one which takes it as read that people now expect services to be built around them: easy to find, always available, quick and simple to use.

That’s true whether it’s booking a flight, ordering a takeaway or managing your finances online. It should be exactly the same for government. But, when it comes to other parts of our democracy, it isn’t. Yet.

Our shiny new online registration service rests on top of processes and procedures dating back to the time of Charles Dickens. It’s like we’ve had a fancy new front gate put in, but the driveway leading up to the gate still has grass growing up the middle, no signposting and a lawnmower rusting in a hedge.

Take the annual canvas. Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) have to send a household inquiry form to every property in their areas: 27 million properties and a mountain of paper. By law if there’s no response the household gets 2 reminders followed by a visit. Much of this expensive activity is entirely unnecessary, as in most cases, 75% of households haven’t changed since the last canvass.

And the timing is terrible, as the canvass begins 2 months after an election: the very point in the cycle when voters are least likely to be paying attention. In wards with large numbers of students it’s even worse. No-one’s there to even see the letters until October.

And the whole process is judged on inputs rather than outcomes: on letters delivered and doors knocked on, rather than electors actually registered to vote. It’s a centrally determined one-size fits all process. But in fact it fits nobody.

So it’s time we got that driveway back into shape.

We need to move from an old-fashioned, paper-based, box-ticking, process-obsessed system that was conceived for an analogue world, to a modern, flexible, digital answer that matches what we all expect – and already experience – in every other area of our lives.

Fortunately, many councils are champing at the bit to make the change happen. You might even say they’re fizzing with ideas, waiting to explode. They know we can drive down costs and engage more people at the same time, particularly from those hard-to-reach and under-registered groups I just mentioned.

They want to use data they already hold on residents – parking permits or Council Tax records – to identify who hasn’t moved house, so they can devote their money and time to tracking down the ones who’ve recently moved in.

They want to engage with local colleges and universities, learning from successful projects that are already running in places like Sheffield, to register more students.

They’re ready to enlist help from civil society organisations like Operation Black Vote and Citizens UK who can help reach out to voters from underrepresented groups.

They’re also ready to work with political parties too. Political activists know, as I mentioned before, that this matters. They’ve got skin in the game, as the Americans would say.

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Back to the councils and how we’re going to work with them. They are – rightly – holding my feet to the fire as well. They want to use all those occasions when British citizens touch central government, whether it’s for their pensions, benefits, driving license, tax or passports, to nudge them to register to vote.

And they ask – entirely reasonably – why we ask everybody to re-register every year when we don’t do the same for someone applying for a driving license? Or a TV licence? Or a pension?

Individual Elector Registration rightly asks every citizen to claim their democratic right to vote. But once they’ve done it, why do we keep asking them the same question again and again and again? Don’t we trust them?

And finally, crucially, they’re happy to be judged by results. By how many new voters they find and sign up. By both the completeness and accuracy of their registers. Not just by the number of boxes they’ve ticked.

I’ve been absolutely delighted by the enthusiasm and determination in local authorities when I’ve met them to discuss this new approach.

The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, SOLACE, are right behind it and want to get involved.

And a cross-section of progressive local councils have already started discussing specific ideas with my officials.

  • Sir Howard Bernstein, the Chief Executive for Manchester City Council
  • Barry Quirk, in his dual capacity as Chief Executive for Lewisham Borough Council and Chair of the London Elections Board
  • David Buckle, Chief Executive for South and Vale
  • Paul Lankester, Chief Executive for Stratford on Avon District Council
  • Rob Leak, Chief Executive for Enfield London Borough Council
  • Theresa Grant, Chief Executive of Trafford Council; and
  • Robert Connelly, head of electoral services at Birmingham City Council

Equally important, and very welcome, is the presence of the Electoral Commission, who have a fund of expertise we will draw on too.

And it won’t just be limited to these tribunes of modern, progressive thinking. I want to work with local authorities to establish an online academy where we can bring experts and evidence together. It will show anyone with an interest what works under what circumstances and for how much. And it will be a collaborative hub, where EROs can exchange ideas, identify common challenges and develop shared solutions.

This is a technical subject and as I’ve said, most people don’t care how the plumbing works, as long as it works. Our job is to make sure of that. But let’s not forget what this is ultimately all about.

It’s about making sure that as many of our citizens as possible can participate in our democracy.

It’s about giving more people the chance to stand in the polling station, not as taxpayers, or as pensioners, or as students, or public sector workers or aspirational voters, but as citizens. Citizens: waiting to cast their vote, waiting to make their mark.

That’s what we’re in it for, and I’m looking forward to working with you to help more of our citizens join that line.

Published 23 October 2015