The Silent, Growing Crisis of Voter Registration

Polling station

The UK is facing a “silent, growing crisis in our democracy” with millions of people missing from the electoral register, David Cameron has been warned, in a letter from more than 50 politicians, academics and campaigners this week. Below is the full open letter that was sent to the Prime Minister and published in The Times. It was authored by Toby James and Bite the Ballot’s Oliver Sidorczuk, Fellow and Convenor of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation

Polling station
Polling station
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister
John Penrose MP, Minister for Constitutional Reform
Nicky Morgan, MP, Secretary of State for Education
8th February 2016

Dear Prime Minister, Ministers,

Though we write to you during National Voter Registration Drive, a celebration of active citizenship, there is a silent, growing crisis in our democracy.

The number of eligible voters missing from electoral registers has grown dramatically. In the 1950s it was estimated that over 96% of people were on the voting rolls. By 2014, this had dropped to 85% with up to 7.5 million people missing. Reforms recently made to the electoral registration process to combat electoral fraud have led to many further names being removed from the electoral register. Worryingly, many would-be-voters were turned away from the polls at the 2015 general election because they were not registered.

The importance of the ‘missing millions’ has intensified because the electoral register is now used to draw an electoral map for general elections. This means that those groups or regions underrepresented on the register will be underrepresented in the UK Parliament and Government. The problem is especially acute for young people. Up to a third of young people are thought to be missing, and the number of ‘attainers’- 16-17 year olds who will be the next generation of voters- is plummeting. The available solutions are well known, backed up by research and are largely proposals made by Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in 2015. We therefore call on the Government to:
•Undertake a full review of the effects of individual electoral registration (IER)
•Enable citizens to update their registration details when they access other government services (such as Council Tax, driver’s licences or registering for benefits)
•Issue guidance to schools, colleges, sixth forms and universities about the importance of incorporating registration into education and enrolment systems
•Move to a system where citizens are automatically registered to vote, in the longer term
•Set out steps towards allowing election day registration
•Invest more money in the long-term funding of electoral registration, and
•Pilot innovations that modernise the polling day process, such using electronic electoral registers, which would allow citizens to vote at any polling station.

Voter registration isn’t just a bureaucratic form-filling exercise. It can form a crucial first step in young citizens’ political engagement. What is needed now is for the Government- and all political parties- to recognise this, think beyond partisan lines, and act to strengthen the foundations of UK democracy for the long-term.
We call on you to lead this charge.


The Undersigned
Dr. Toby James – Fellow, APPG on Democratic Participation; University of East Anglia

Oliver Sidorczuk – Director and Policy Coordinator, Bite The Ballot

Tim Farron MP – Leader, Liberal Democrats

Leanne Wood AM – Leader, Plaid Cymru

Natalie Bennett – Leader, Green Party of England and Wales

Willie Rennie MSP – Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats

Kirsty Williams AM – Leader, Welsh Liberal Democrats

Steve Crowther – Chairman, UK Independence Party

John Strafford – Chairman, Conservative Campaign for Democracy

Charles Clarke – Home Secretary (2004-06)

Lesley Griffiths AM – Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty

Sarah Champion MP – Shadow Minister for Preventing Abuse

Dame Glenis Willmott DBE MEP – Leader, European Parliamentary Labour Party

Amelia Womack – Deputy Leader, Green Party of England and Wales

Graham Allen MP – Chair, Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (2010-15)

Lord Wallace of Tankerness QC – Leader, Liberal Democrats, House of Lords

Caroline Pidgeon MBE MP – Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate (2016)

Cllr. Siân Berry – Green Party of England and Wales London mayoral candidate (2008, 2016)

Baroness (Jenny) Jones AM – Deputy Mayor of London (2003-4)

Lord Rennard MBE – Co-Chair, APPG on Democratic Participation

Mark Durkan MP – Co-Chair, APPG on Democratic Participation

George Howarth MP – Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (1997-01)

Lord Roberts of Llandudno – Member, APPG on Democratic Participation

Christine Blower – General Secretary, National Union of Teachers

Michael Sani – CEO, Bite The Ballot

Yasmin Waljee OBE – International Pro Bono Director, Hogan Lovells LLP

Simon Burall – Director, Involve

Megan Dunn – National President, NUS UK

Beth Button – President, NUS Cymru

Katie Ghose – CEO, Electoral Reform Society

Alexandra Runswick – Director, Unlock Democracy

Titus Alexander – Convener, Democracy Matters

Tom Brake MP – Deputy Leader, House of Commons (2012-15)

Joyce Watson AM – Welsh Assembly

Keith Davies AM – Welsh Assembly

Peter Black AM – Welsh Assembly

Mike Hedges AM – Welsh Assembly

Jeff Cuthbert AM – Welsh Assembly

Jane Hutt AM – Welsh Assembly

Aled Roberts AM – Welsh Assembly

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM – Welsh Assembly

John Griffiths AM – Welsh Assembly

Darren Johnson AM – London Assembly

Emyr Gruffydd – Chair, Plaid Cymru Ifanc

Dr. Alistair Clark – University of Newcastle

Dr. Stuart Wilks-Heeg -University of Liverpool

Dr. Maria Sobolewska – Fellow, APPG on Democratic Participation; University of Manchester

Prof. Ron Johnston – University of Bristol

Prof. Matthew Flinders – Chair, Political Studies Association; University of Sheffield

Prof. Jonathan Tonge – University of Liverpool; (former) Chair, Youth Citizenship Commission

Prof. Rachel Gibson – University of Manchester

Prof. David Sanders – University of Essex

Prof. Anthony Heath – Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Dr. Rainbow Murray – Queen Mary, University of London

Prof. Robert Ford – University of Manchester

Prof. Andrew Russell- University of Manchester

Prof. Laura Morales – University of Leicester

Prof. Alan Finlayson – University of East Anglia

Prof. Francesca Gains – University of Manchester

Dr. Chris Hanretty – University of East Anglia

Dr. Emily Rainsford – University of Newcastle

Dr. Timothy Peace – University of Stirling

Prof. David Cutts – University of Manchester

This post originally featured on the Political Studies Association blog

Dr Toby James is a Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia and Fellow to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation. Oliver Sidorczwk is Policy Coordinator at Bite the Ballot and Convenor of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation.

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