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Why Has Registering to Vote Turned Into Such a Shambles?

In a proper democracy, you shouldn't even have to worry about it.
June 8, 2016, 3:25pm

An image from the #TurnUp voter registration campaign

If you were on social media on Tuesday, you may have noticed a few posts that looked a bit like this:

Marie Antoinette died just so we could have the vote, so we can't waste it now. If you're not registered you have to do it by tonight otherwise old people will decide this Brexit. It doesn't matter who you vote for, just vote!!

or this:

If you don't vote you might as well book a flight for all your foreign mates and deport them now. Register today!

For the Remain campaign, the social media blitz was a big success. They believe that, because young people are both more likely to vote Remain and more likely to be unregistered, a registration drive is likely to help them. Cameron and Corbyn were all madly tweeting to get voters to register yesterday, whereas Farage and Boris didn't mention it once.

In fact, the campaign was such a success that the website crashed last night at around 10pm and many people were left unable to register. David Cameron has since intervened, telling people to continue to register today, after the deadline has closed, which seems both democratically fair and makes the whole "deadline" thing seem like spurious nonsense.

That's the thing about this whole voter registration drive, though: it's a bit of a charade which makes people feel better about democracy but is actually doing very little to help register new voters who otherwise wouldn't have registered.


At the general election last May, for example, there were around five million new applications to vote. That sounds positive, but in the end, the number of registered voters only went up by 1.35 million.

This is, in part, because there is no way of checking online whether you have already registered and so many people re-register, just to be sure. Many more were already registered but re-register when they move house. So although there appears to be a huge amount of enthusiasm for voter registration, it's not having the desired impact or getting disenfranchised people on to the electoral register.

Which is hugely problematic, because there are millions of people unregistered to vote and the number is increasing at a rate of millions over the past few years. In the 1950s, it was estimated that over 96 percent of people were on the electoral register, by 2014 that had dropped down to 85 percent, meaning 7.5 million people in the UK were eligible to vote but not registered. One year later, the number of people registered to vote has dropped by over 920,000 with some councils reporting as many as 12 percent of voters dropping off the electoral register.

This has mostly been down to the way voters are registered. Previously you were registered by household automatically, so when you turned 18, you'd get a polling card sent to the same address as your parents. Many universities also registered every student in halls. Now each voter has to register individually, which means if you're not already on the electoral register, you actively have to add yourself.


It doesn't have to be this complicated. In fact, the UK is one of the few countries in the developed world where there are large numbers of citizens who aren't registered to vote. In most other European countries, voting is linked to your council tax or national insurance. Many people think it's the same thing in the UK, and that's why they don't bother to register.

The problem with it taking such a high amount of effort to vote is that it distracts efforts and resources from driving turnout up on election day. That should be the main focus of those who want to improve our democratic system, because low turnout skews the demographics of who decide elections.

According to a report by Professor Matthew Flinders at LSE:

In the 1987 general election, for example, the turnout rate for the poorest income group was 4% lower than for the wealthiest. By 2010 the gap had grown to a staggering 23 points. A similar pattern is observable in relation to age groups. In 1970 there was an 18-point gap in turnout rates between 18–24-year-olds and those aged over 65; by 2005 this gap had more than doubled to over 40 points, before narrowing slightly to 32 points in 2010.

We need to rectify this for voting to function effectively. If younger and poorer people don't turnout to vote then universal suffrage is basically a sham and the mandate of a government or outcome of a referendum is severely compromised.

Voter registration is a bureaucratic and costly distraction from getting people to actually vote. We need a system where the government makes every attempt to assure that you are registered and individuals only need to register themselves if there is any kind of problem.


Instead we have this mess, where the same people are registering themselves each time there's an election while millions go unaccounted for.

But by all means:

in other news remember to register to vote otherwise Donald trump will come and teabag you

— Blonde (@Blondesound)June 8, 2016

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