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The curious case of duplicate voter registrations

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

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Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act (1918) which for the first time gave the right to vote to women over the age of 30, and all men over the age of 21.

Democracy, thankfully, has come a long way since, although it’s not gone far enough for some, especially those who support lowering the legal voting age to 16 for example.

Technological advancements have, of course, played their part in helping to advance democratic processes and accountability.

But change can bring unintended (and unwanted) consequences too.

The most recent significant change came with the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER). Under the previous system, the head of a household would submit an application on behalf of all those old enough to vote living at an address. But IER requires everybody to register individually.

The Electoral Commission found last year that the switch in systems resulted in approximately 770,000 people being removed from the electoral register when revised registers were published on 1 December 2015. Younger people are among those considered most at risk of losing their democratic voice, especially university students as they tend to move properties many times and remembering to register to vote does not tend to make it to the top of their list of priorities.

As LGC reports today, the switch to IER has had another knock-on effect and one which is pushing hard-pressed council election teams to the limit.

Residents confused as to whether they are registered to vote in elections, and without a means to check online, have swamped the system with an alarming number of duplicate applications.

Experts have told LGC that processing these duplicate applications is not only wasting election teams’ time but money too.

The Cabinet Office said the IER system was more efficient with a spokeswoman claiming it was “cheaper and easier to delete digital duplicates than to deal with paper applications or personal queries from citizens”.

As Jo Miller, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers’ president, pointed out on Twitter, having a system whereby citizens can check if they are already registered first would be even better.

While people can contact their council and check if they are registered to vote, this requires a certain amount of motivation among residents and can be a slow process for both officers and the public. It also goes against the grain when local authorities are attempting to push people to do as much of their council business online as possible.

In an age when people can enter registration plate details into an online database to check if their vehicle needs an MOT or its tax renewing, surely a similar system for voters could be developed?

Arguments against include concerns it could eventually lead to automatic or compulsory voter registration, and/or it could result in unpopular ID cards being introduced. The key word in those opposing arguments is ‘could’, not ‘will’.

Returning officers want to see reforms, as do the Electoral Commission, and the Electoral Reform Society, while the Association of Electoral Administrators’ chief executive John Turner said it is “absolutely ludicrous” voters are not able to check online if they are registered.

It is even more ludicrous when you consider such a system has existed in Ireland since 2006.

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