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'Data-led canvassing could be the change electoral registers need'

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Registering to vote is everyone’s first step on the road to exercising their democratic right, so it’s vital we make it as simple and efficient as possible.

Every year, electoral registration officers conduct what is known as the ‘annual canvass’ to keep electoral registers up to date.

Currently, they are legally required to send out a form to every house in their area confirming who is registered to vote at that address. If they do not get a response, they are required to send two further letters and to go out in person to each home to get the information.

This process is outdated, inefficient and expensive. This simply isn’t sustainable – major changes are needed to ensure we have an efficient way of keeping the registers up to date.

With the help of local authorities, the government has piloted four potential new methods of conducting the annual canvass.

In some areas, electoral administrators trialled the use of telephone and email to contact electors. Other pilot schemes used data such as council tax or housing benefit records to find out who is likely to have changed address in the past year, helping authorities target their canvass activity.

The Electoral Commission’s role is to carry out an evaluation of the pilots. In each case, we looked at how good the method was at capturing changes to the registers and how much it cost.

None of the methods trialled is ready to be implemented in place of the current canvass.

However, evidence gathered during the pilot shows that data-led canvassing has the potential to make the canvass process more efficient – though it still needs to be developed and refined. We have recommended that the government should develop this data-led approach.

We have suggested some changes that would make data-led canvassing more effective and practical, such as using national datasets alongside local ones. We have also highlighted the need for government to consider what support is needed to ensure electoral administrators have the skills to manage data effectively and securely.

We believe that these changes, properly implemented, would make it simpler, more efficient and cheaper to keep electoral registers up to date – ultimately helping more people exercise their democratic right.

In the longer term we still want to see more radical reforms to the system of electoral registration We will have more to say about what those changes might look like in the future.

Phil Thompson, head of research, The Electoral Commission. More information on the pilots and the commission’s recommendations is available here.

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