By Lily Owen
More than 9 million eligible UK voters are not correctly registered and are at risk of not being able to participate in a potential, upcoming snap election, according to research by the Electoral Commission. It has emerged that there are obvious gaps in the registration levels between young people, renters, low-income earners and minority people, compared with older, white home-owners.
Why is this particular right so hard to exercise?
Of course, the last few years have been flooded with post-Brexit political uncertainty. The number of people registered to vote in the UK has fallen for the first time since 2015, following major national votes three years running – two General Elections and the EU Referendum – and so many individuals feel that the whole process has become rather tiresome. Constant changes in leadership and the cabinet have, most recently, not been the result of public votes and appear to diminish the value of our national democracy.
Back in 2017, it was in fact the EU Referendum that saw registration peak at a five year high, possibly due to the excitement around its uniqueness, calling for public say on a matter of such importance. However, Brexit is just one case where your vote counts. Every general election calls for public say and the engagement we saw in 2017 should be sustained and encouraged in future cases, not falling as it is and especially with the looming prospect of a snap election. There seems to be so much hidden paperwork, information to be renewed, no easy means of checking your status and a lack of reminders that serve to disenfranchise many more vulnerable voter groups.
Only 5 years ago did the government make individuals responsible for their own voter registration, seeking to reduce electoral fraud. However, the result has really been to reduce electoral participation altogether, failing to educate existing and new voters on how to understand and engage in the system.
So how could we go about improving our voter registration system?
Lowering the voting age
- Labour has already announced it intends to lower the voting age to 16 and this amendment could help to match responsibilities to rights in the UK. Whilst the minimum age for activities, such as drinking and voting, is kept at 18, the age of responsibility for sexual consent, higher education, marriage, joining the army and leaving home is only 16. The idea that young people under the age of 18 are not intellectually developed enough is therefore flawed, as they are trusted with so many other pressing life decisions. If an individual is independent and responsible enough to do all of these things at 16, surely they can have a say in how their country is run?
Compulsory politics education for younger years
- In partnership with lowering the voting age, greater emphasis on political education seems highly appropriate. The UK constitution, parliamentary parties and policies, election fundamentals and the voter registration system are taught as part of an optional politics course from GCSE level onwards, in most schools. Voting is a right, not a privilege, and so in the same way that we should be outraged if a criminal is not read their rights upon arrest, or we are not informed if our personal data is being used, we should be outraged that our ability to vote is not taught to eligible voters. By not insisting in the widespread education of this subject, political awareness has become a privileged knowledge for those already possessing a sense of awareness that encourages them to study further.
Weekend or multi-day elections
- For some reason, under the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011, it has become tradition to hold UK General Elections on a Thursday. This was supposedly because Friday pay-packets would lead to more drunken voters on Fridays and Weekends and being as long after a Sunday as possible would reduce the influence of Sunday sermons. These reasons have become totally outdated and unrealistic for the modern day working-class citizen. With Thursday, being part of the working week, one can assume that the average person will be working a 9am-5pm day, not including overtime. Whilst the polls do allow for this, being open from 7am-10pm, single parents or people that work multiple jobs, or night shifts can still encounter difficulties to fit voting into their day. The most common reason people cite for not voting is not having enough time; considering this, the idea of multi-day elections becomes very attractive. To have the polls open Thursday to Friday, or even longer, could offer much more opportunity for voters to pop by and hopefully increase turn-out. If lengthening the election process will help enfranchise a greater proportion of the population, then surely that is in the country’s democratic best interest?
Automatic Voter Registration
- Most recently, the discussion of an Automatic Voter Registration system has come to light and is currently being fought for by the Labour party. This idea comes from examples in countries, such as Canada and Finland, who automatically register their voters; as well as other models that could utilise government bodies like the DVLA and HMRC as modes for people to ‘opt in’ to the register when using their services. This system side-steps the current complications and the gap in public knowledge about how to go about registering. If we can help complete this process on behalf of individuals, then half of the work is already done for them: it is just up to each citizen to go out and actually vote.
Rather than doing the above, the Conservative government is seeking an introduction of compulsory voter ID. However, with there being “no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud” (Electoral Commission), this reform would be disproportionate, shutting more eligible people out of voting. Not acting in the name of reducing electoral fraud poses the question then, of why? There is a great deal of suspicion regarding other motives, such as further suppressing voters’ rights. In particular, black and ethnic minority voters are less likely to possess this required ID: one of the more vulnerable voter groups that are already being neglected by the current system.
Given the current levels of voter registration and turnout, measures that actually encourage voting should take legislative priority. Hopefully, these suggestions listed could be a way to really show how much public engagement is valued by the government, rather than simply playing to the wants of the current and increasingly narrow voter demographic.