Personal letters key to voting change
Using letters personally addressed to potential voters has emerged as one of the key ways of boosting registration levels, government-commissioned research has suggested.
A study into the barriers that certain groups face in registering to vote found that people’s attitudes towards voting were likely to be the biggest determinant in whether they did so under a new system of individual electoral registration.
But campaigners criticised the research, conducted by market research firm GfK Social Research for the Cabinet Office, saying the focus on attitudes potentially downplayed the important effect of demographics on the completeness of electoral rolls.
From 2014, each individual will become responsible for ensuring they are registered to vote. This is a change from the current system under which the head of a household completes a canvass form giving details of each individual eligible to vote at an address. There are fears that this move will see millions of people drop off the electoral roll. The Electoral Commission has estimated registration levels could drop from 80% to 65% as a result of the change.
As part of its effort to protect registration levels, the Cabinet Office commissioned research into the barriers to registration for groups such as students and young people, ethnic minorities and recent home movers.
The study found that views towards registration were more likely to be driven by attitudes than by demographic characteristics. One major barrier was found to be a basic lack of resonance, with participants claiming voting and registering to vote just wasn’t something they engaged with.
The report authors suggested a “campaign to promote personal responsibility” would be needed to encourage people to engage with the political system. And many people interviewed in the study stressed the importance of receiving a personally addressed letter when being sent registration forms, with some noting that this would ensure they would at least open it and encourage them to “take ownership of registering”. Letters addressed to “the occupier” would be unlikely to act as a sufficient “call to action”, participants said.
The researchers also suggested using the prospect of registration as a route to an improved credit rating as a means of persuading those unlikely to register. Younger participants also said they expected secure online registration, perhaps using mobile phone technology.
However campaigners criticised a claim in the report that “views towards [individual electoral registration] and registering to vote in general were driven by attitudes rather than demographic characteristics”.
Darren Hughes, director of campaigns and research at the Electoral Reform Society said it was right to promote personal responsibility but that the government could not be allowed to forget its own responsibilities.
“This is the biggest change to the way we do elections since the universal franchise and millions will disappear from our democracy unless it’s done right,” he said. “This paper reaches some potentially dangerous conclusions. Decades of research have shown that key demographics in our communities are significantly under registered. Barely half of under-24s are on the roll, compared with nearly 95% of pensioners. On ethnicity, 77% of people from BME communities are registered compared with 86% of white citizens.
“If the government is blind to these patterns then we’re guaranteed to see millions vanish from the register.”
To download a copy of the report, click here