Jo Stevens

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Automatic Voter Registration - My Bill

Voting for the people who represent you is one of the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy. There is, however, a problem with our current system. Millions of people are missing out on having their say.

Within the current procedure for voter registration, all eligible voters must pro-actively register with their local electoral registration office, and then re-register if they move address, even if it's within the same electoral area.

Along with making it hard for individuals, the system also relies on already over-stretched and underfunded local authorities to track down and chase missing voters in their area.

Evidence has shown that a large percentage of the people not on the register are younger or from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Clearly, this is not acceptable. The already marginalised are getting less of a say at the ballot box.

Fortunately, there's a better way. Today I proposed a Bill in the House of Commons that would require the government to register voters automatically.

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This would happen when people are issued with a National Insurance Number or, for people already over 16, using data held by government departments like HMRC and the DVLA.

Using this existing, trusted data is the practical solution we need to fully enfranchise every eligible voter so they can have their say.

We're living in an age of big data and 'digital by default' so it seems counterintuitive for the government not to make use of the solutions available to make sure the electoral register is complete.

Around the world there are many successful examples of automatic voter registration systems, for example in Canada where electoral information is continually updated from records held by government agencies, and in Chile where a recent change added over 4.5million voters to the register, many of them under the age of 30.

Closer to home Denmark, Germany, Italy and Sweden all use a version of automatic registration.

I think it's about time we caught up here in the UK and moved to an automatic voter registration system.

The House voted to give Leave to bring the Bill so its Second Reading will be on Friday 19th January 2018.

Watch my speech, and presentation of the Bill, here:

The full text of my speech is below:

Mr Speaker,

I beg to move

That leave be given to bring in a bill to impose certain duties upon Her Majesty’s Government to ensure the accuracy, completeness and utility of electoral registers; to make provision for the sharing of data for the purposes of electoral registration; and for connected purposes.

Mr Speaker, voting for our representatives is one of the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy. We are fortunate in this country to be able to hold free and fair elections, and see millions of people participating in the democratic process, voting for representatives to this place, to the devolved national legislatures and in regional and local government.

There is, however, a real problem with our current system. Millions of people are missing from the electoral register. They are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process.

Whilst it is an individual’s decision and responsibility to decide whether to take part in the democratic process, I and many others believe that the government has a duty to make it as simple and convenient as possible for citizens to have their say in elections.

Mr Speaker, Individual Electoral Registration has, unsurprisingly, not achieved what we were told it would do. There are millions of people still missing from the register. Even if people register initially, it is maintaining their registration which is problematic and ineffective.

Studies have shown that a large percentage of the missing people are young people or those from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Those groups being excluded from the registration process are exactly the groups of people we should be prioritising because this disenfranchisement is marginalising already marginalised groups.

The roll-out of individual electoral registration has been very costly - estimated at some £120 million. Yet it remains an ineffective and inefficient system.

At the 2015 general election, 12,800 people were turned away from polling stations, unable to vote as they were not on the register.

Earlier this year in June’s general election this figure was over 10,000.

Taking into account the nature of the most marginal constituencies, this number of votes is enough to swing an election. Can any of us in this place be satisfied that this situation is acceptable?

Many non-governmental organisations and charities such as Bite the Ballot and Hope Not Hate regularly undertake voter registration drives, but voter registration should not be the responsibility of those organisations. It should be the responsibility of the state - which should do everything it can to ensure as complete an electoral register as is possible.

Not being on the electoral register has implications that extend beyond the inability to vote.

Those not on the register will have their credit rating disadvantaged.

They may not have access to mainstream borrowing.

They may not be able to obtain a mortgage.

They cannot undertake jury service and play their part in our justice system.

And yet most people are aware that registering to vote is compulsory. They are aware that they risk being fined for not registering to vote. But still we see enormous gaps in the register.

This is because putting the onus of a complex system on citizens, and leaving under-funded local authorities to chase them, is clearly not the most efficient or cost-effective way to ensure the completeness of the register.

This is why a change is necessary and this is why the state can and should step in.

My Bill, Mr Speaker, would make a change that would implement a common sense, straight forward and cost effective system.

My Bill, Mr Speaker, places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral register is complete;
imposes a duty on the Government and public bodies to work better together;
and proposes to make electoral registration as simple and convenient as possible for citizens.

This is achieved by integrating existing trusted national and local datasets such as national insurance, tax, pension and DWP data that already contain individuals’ names and addresses and, adding citizens to the register at the age of 16, when they are issued with a national insurance number.

At each point where a citizen interacts with the state, those trusted datasets would collate relevant information for the electoral register. For example, when tax was paid, a social security payment received, a driving licence or passport issued or updated, a pension claimed or TV licence issued.

The government is already prioritising anti-fraud and security measures and in doing so, using datasets from different public bodies. In the age of big data and 'digital by default', it’s time the government itself adopted these principles for electoral registration.
I want to at this point pay tribute to my honourable friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, who introduced a similar Bill to this House in February 2016; and to Baroness McDonagh who has recently introduced an Automatic Electoral Registration Bill in the other place.

It is clear this is a pressing issue and there is widespread support for modernising our electoral registration system, including from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Reform Society.

The cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (predecessor to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee) supported automatic electoral registration in its 2015 report on Voter Engagement in the UK.

There are examples in many countries across the world of the successful implementation of automatic voter registration systems.

In Canada, for example, electoral information is continually updated with information from other government sources such as the Canada Revenue Agency, immigration and citizenship services and drivers’ licence agencies. It is also possible for electors to continue to pro-actively update their information with the electoral registration administrators.

In Chile, a move to automatic registration in 2013 has seen over four and a half million new voters added to the nation’s electoral register, most of them under the age of 30. Clearly a significant improvement in enfranchising young people in that country.

Closer to home, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Sweden also add to their electoral registers automatically using various different government-held data sets.

A database which would hold the UK-wide register was proposed by the last Labour government. The Co-ordinated On-line Record of Electors, or ‘CORE’ system, would link up with existing information and keep the register up to date.

The cost of building the CORE system was estimated to be £11.4 million, and then £2.7 million per year to run thereafter.

In 2011 when it was scrapped, the coalition government claimed it was not cost-effective. Yet the switch to IER has cost £120 million and we still have an incomplete register.

Building the CORE system and running it annually from 2011 to date would have cost just over £20m according to the estimated figures. And we would have a much more complete register of electors.

The Welsh Labour Government is currently consulting on electoral reform in Wales following the devolution of powers in the Wales Act.

The consultation includes options on data sharing and the possibility of moving to a more automated system.

I hope we will very shortly see voters in Wales automatically added to a national electoral register and being able to vote from age 16 onwards.

With recent general elections hanging on such tight margins, it is obvious why a full and complete register is essential.
Mere handfuls of votes swung constituency results in the general elections of 2015 and 2017, so it’s clear that every vote really does make a difference.

Opponents of automatic registration will say that registering is a personal responsibility. I disagree.

It is a personal responsibility to vote and the state should make it as simple and convenient for every citizen to discharge that responsibility – not put barriers and bureaucracy in their way.

That is why it is imperative that automatic electoral registration is implemented as soon as possible.

So that everyone can have their say – and I commend this motion to the House.

 

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