Automatic Voter Registration

30 June, 2016


Democracy in the UK

Our democracy here in the UK is in need of a spot of TLC! We’ve reached a critical point, as recent changes to the method of voter registration have led to many people being removed from the electoral register. In 2014 it was estimated that 7.5m voters were missing from the electoral register - a number which is likely to have risen since the introduction of the new system to register to vote! We at Ben & Jerry’s believe democracy only works when it works for everyone, and our Don’t Get Frozen Out campaign focused on turning up the heat on democracy by… ahem… scooping up new voters to the tune of 5,000 citizens in London ahead of the Mayoral Election.

The EU referendum has shown us that many people in our country are (rightly) tired of being left out of how our society operate; distrust in politicians, the government, and in our institutions is at record levels…and, unless we take steps forward, we’ll see our country becoming ever more divided in the years to come!

Building a democracy that works for everyone would be a first step to correcting many of the issues we now face in the UK. The urgency on this issue has stepped up – in fact, a debate was called in Parliament on Wednesday, by Owen Thompson MP, on the topic of Automatic Voter Registration. We were invited to attend; here’s the scoop!

What would it mean?

Definitions of Automatic Voter Registration vary, but most concepts relate the auto-enrolment of people onto the electoral register when they register for a particular service from the government. Our local councils - the bodies with the responsibility to registering voters - have access to a huge amount of data on the people that live in their area. Take Council Tax, schools and housing benefit, for example. We don’t need to ‘register’ in order to pay taxes, so why do we need to register to vote?! Many of the arguments to automatically register people to vote are based on the fact that our councils already have a great deal of information, and could link another service to voter registration, for example attending school or paying council tax with the ability for citizens to opt out rather than opt in. Auto-enrolment would be a first step to greater democratic participation - now who wouldn’t want that?

Why aren’t people registered to vote?

The government have launched a shiny new website to allow people to register to vote, which is a good step forward…but there’s still the issue of the message actually reaching the most under-registered groups! The most under registered groups (including young people, black and ethnic minorities and the disabled) are those most in need of having a voice in society, yet if the current process does not reach them, it’s useless.

Here’s a startling fact for you: A pensioner homeowner living in the countryside is more than 90% likely to be registered to vote. In comparison, a young male private renter from an ethnic minority has less than a 10% likelihood of being registered to vote! This was outlined at the debate by Siobhian McDonagh, the MP for Mitcham and Morden.

There’s also a whole host of people who wrongly believe they are registered to vote! At the last general election, a whopping two-thirds of polling stations across the country turned away people who turned out to not be registered to vote. It’s a no-brainer: auto-enrolment would be the quick-fix for some of these issues!

What are the benefits?

Around the world, many countries already run a system of automatic voter registration to great level of success. In Australia for example, the state of Victoria has an automatic register with levels of 95% accuracy, and operated by a team of just five individuals. Oregon has become the first US state to automatically register voters - in this case when they get their driver’s licence - with the ability to opt out.

Councils spend a huge amount of resources chasing down people in order to register them to vote and, whilst government data systems can be large and cumbersome, a system of automatic voter registration could be a better use of resources. Kudos to Manchester Council; they’re planning to trial a system of automatic voter registration, which could be used as roll out to other parts of the UK in the future!

What else is needed?

Automatic voter registration is not the silver bullet to creating a democracy that works for all…but, should automatic voter registration be combined with political education and accountable decision-making, our democracy could be radically transformed! This could help fight voter apathy, and drive greater civic participation. If you want to read more about the options we have to transform our democracy for the better, check out this recent report - it’s from our friends at Bite The Ballot and Dr Toby James outlining 25 proposals that would truly create a democracy that works for everyone!