Voter engagement has been a serious concern in the UK, with low levels of voter turnout and levels of registration. The evidence, argues Toby James, is that election day registration would put the voter first and would be a wise move for British democracy.
When the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform recently launched an enquiry into voter engagement in the U.K., some might have been sceptical about what a select committee could propose that would make a difference to what is now a deep rooted problem in the British political system. A low turnout on polling day has become one of the most predictable features of a British election. Less well known is that one in five of British citizens are not on the register in the first place. This matters because governments and elected officials are being chosen by an increasingly small and disproportionate section of the population. The policies and electoral interests of such governments risk being insensitive to those groups who are not active at the ballot box.
The importance of electoral administration
Scepticism about what a select committee can suggest to fix this problem might be sensible because the causes of low turnout are complex. They include changes in political culture, changes in the party system, changes in public sector management structures and much more. As I argue in a chapter in a new book on electoral integrity, the causes of declining levels of registration are also complex.
There is therefore no single ‘silver bullet’ for voter engagement. However, looking at the procedure by which citizens cast their votes and have their name added to the electoral register could increase engagement. One lesson that we can learn from America is that more convenient registration and voting systems can help voter engagement. This relatively intuitive point has been supported by research dating back to the 1980s, and before. It is a particularly important point because the Coalition’s introduction of individual electoral registration may lead to a further decrease in levels of electoral registration.
One of the reforms that the committee is looking at is election-day registration. It is probably not coincidental that the Labour party seemed to announce support for this last week. Would this make a difference? The evidence suggests that it would.
I have developed a framework for identifying potential reforms that a country might want to consider introducing to increase voter turnout based on the comparative literature and categorised election-day registration as a reform that could have a very positive effect on both voter registration rates and turnout. Citizens are currently required to register 11 days in advance of a general election. Election-day registration would mean that citizens could register on the day of the election, at the point of voting. This would mean that people who had forgotten to register earlier or had only become interested in the election late on could still cast a vote.
Studies on election-day registration have consistently shown that it can increase voter registration rates. In the 2012 US Presidential election those states that had election- day registration had turnout rates of percentage points higher than other states. Academic studies published since my framework have also consistently estimated that it has had a positive effect on turnout (see my evidence to the select committee for more). We should therefore expect that the effect on the UK could also be very positive. Election-day registration would genuinely put the voter first. No longer would they have to worry about registering before an arbitrary cut-off date, about which few are aware.
We should be clear, however, that election-day registration would pose implementation challenges for election officials. Newer research also points to how well resourced and managed electoral services departments are important to improve voter engagement. The scholarship from public administration as long taught us that policies designed at the top, might fail, if we do not listen to concerns of those on the ground. Electoral administrators face many on challenges running elections which are not often heard or listened to by policy makers. Likely challenges would be:
- The need for new technology. Many US states have electronic poll-books to allow election officials to check that an individual has not registered elsewhere on the same day. UK election officials currently use paper lists and have no central database to undertake such real-time checking. This would be costly, but important.
- Staffing. More staff may be required to verify the details of those registering on election-day so that queues did not develop at polling stations.
- A delay in the announcement of the results. It may take officials additional time to verify details of election-day registrants. Such voters could be issued a provisional ballot that could be later included into the tally if the result was close and their registration was confirmed as valid.
Election-day registration could therefore be a big success for elections in the UK, but it would require funding and carefully managed implementation. None of these challenges should make it impossible to overcome, however. It is also unlikely to lead to a problem with election fraud. As part of the introduction of individual electoral registration, citizens will be required to provide a National Insurance Number and date of birth. This means that an election-day registrant could have their details checked on a computer system. It might be wise to pilot the system before implementing it nation-wide. Pilots do not always deliver the increase in turnout rates, but they would be a sensible way of teasing out problems.
There is a wealth of experience that UK policy makers can draw from the US. Election-day registration is currently practiced in ten states (plus the District of Columbia) in the USA. California is due to implement it in the near future. Knowledge sharing of lessons learnt between electoral administrators ‘across the pond’ could enable any implementation challenges to be identified and planned for.
Election-day registration would therefore be a logistical challenge and would need to be properly resourced. However, the evidence suggest that it can make a difference to voter engagement and it would therefore seem to be a very wise move for British democracy.
Dr. Toby S. James is a Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics at the University of East Anglia. He is an expert on electoral administration having published in a range of international journals on the issue and is a member of the advisory board to the Law Commission’s Review of Election Law. For further information, please see: www.tobysjames.com. His evidence to the committee is available: here.
This blog post also appeared on the Democratic Audit blog.