access to democracy
Maria Iacovou is Professor of Quantitative Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and a member of the LCER Executive.
In the UK, people have a legal responsibility to register to vote, and can be fined up to £1000 for failing to register. In fact, as anyone who has been out canvassing at election time will know only too well, large numbers of eligible people aren't registered. The Electoral Commission put that figure at over 9 million people in 2018, or up to 17% of those eligible to vote, with young people, private renters and people who moved house recently being the groups least likely to be registered.
Paul Wheeler, writing in the Independent, provides a shocking estimate: "Black men who live in a city and rent privately have a less than 10 per cent chance of being registered to vote".
Why is voter registration so important? The most obvious reason is that it forms the basis for every other democratic initiative or endeavour. It doesn't matter how great our voting system is or how glittering are the policies on offer at election time: people who aren't registered to vote don't get a say.
Second, anyone who cares about social justice should care about voter registration. The fact that older, wealthier, rural owner-occupiers are substantially more likely to be registered than younger, less affluent people in urban areas has the potential to influence the outcome of elections.
But it gets worse. The government ignored calls for the current boundary review to be based on the numbers of people living in each area, and instead conducted the review on the basis of numbers of people registered to vote. Once again, urban areas and those with more young, poor and geographically mobile people are short-changed.
We could do so much better.
automatic voter registration
In 2020, Labour MP Judith Cummins proposed a Private Member's Bill calling for automatic voter registration on the basis of multiple sources of data including school and NHS registration and council tax records. This would bring voter registration into the 21st century, saving money and being hugely more effective than the present system.
The Conservatives have little interest in increasing levels of voter registration - the fact that millions of younger, poorer, black and urban people are missing from the electoral registers suits them very well. But the Labour Party should not stand for this injustice - an incoming Labour government should introduce automatic voter registration as soon as possible.
what about compulsory voting?
In a number of countries around the world, voting is compulsory; we're often asked whether we think voting should be compulsory in Britain.
Our short answer to this question is NO, at least while the First Past the Post electoral system remains in place. We don't think it's unreasonable to require citizens to turn out and vote every few years - it's a small price to pay for living in a democracy. But it's entirely indefensible to require pepole to vote when we know that millions of people's votes don't count at all.
Once we've got First Past the Post where it belongs (in the dustbin of history) it might be interesting to re-open the question of compulsory voting. On the plus side, it would get us much closer to a situation where the views of people from all walks of life were represented, as they should be, at tha ballot box. On the other hand, it would introduce a new offence onto the books, which would either have to be enforced (at considerable expense), or not enforced (in which case, why introduce it at all?).
In fact, it's a fair bet that once PR is introduced, voter turnout will increase without any legislation being necessary. Turnout is consistently higher in countries running their elections under PR, and it doesn't take a PhD to work out why. When every vote counts, more people will vote. It's as simple as that.
The Elections Act 2022 was a spectacularly bad piece of legislation. Not only did it take the regressive step of reintroducing FPTP for mayoral elections; not only did it reduce the Electoral Commission's powers to call out and prosecute malpractice; it also introduced a requirement for photo ID at the polling station.
This legislation was introduced ostensibly to reduce voter fraud, despite the fact that only a handful of allegations of voter fraud had been made in recent elections, in numbers insufficient to affect the outcome of the election in any single constituency, let alone the whole country.
It was pushed through despite concerns from the testing phase that many voters who arrived without ID did not return to vote; and about the level of expense involved.
And as Ben Stanford of the LSE points out, there are some interesting anomalies in the types of photo ID that are accepted at polling stations. Older person's bus pass? 60+ Oyster card? Sure, please come and vote. Student ID card? Young person's travel pass? Sorry, you're out of luck.
This is not to say that a requirement for voter ID could never work well anywhere. In fact, the requirement for ID at the polling station is standard in many countries across the world. The difference is that in those countries, everyone has an ID card. The reason the legislation is so disastrous for the UK is that many Brits have no photo ID at all. And (you guessed it) these people are predominantly young, poor and urban.