Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The problem with the current plans on compulsory voter registration

The current Government has proposed to speed up the process of compulsory individual voter registration. At present, the head of household completes a form stating all eligible voters. Under this new plan, each voter would have to register himself or herself. Plus, there would be a requirement to provide additional information, such as National Insurance numbers. The thought is that this might help reduce the likelihood of fraud.

The original timetable was to introduce registration by 2015. The new timetable is to introduce it a year earlier in 2014. Jack Straw immediately criticized the new timetable claiming that the Government was wrong to "rush" this through. This seems unclear as the introduction of such registration is still not for several years.

There is a further concern. The more citizens have to do in order to vote, the less likely that citizens can exercize their vote. Such problems plagued the Northern Ireland election in 2002. The Government claims that all persons registered under the new and old systems will all be eligible to vote in the 2015 general election . . . or at least this is the current argument.

If one were pessimistic, then one might suspect that the roll out of any new major registration scheme like this may run in problems, namely, sticking by the new (or old) timetable(s). A real concern we might have is that the current Government's plans for voter registration do not -- even by mistake -- omit voters from casting their votes.

The reason for this concern, of course, is the Government's attempt to pass a Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill which we have criticized here. This Bill would see the current Government remaining in power (even if more than 50% of the House lacks confidence in it, but less than 67%) until a general election in 2015. The results of this election would then hold power until 2020.

The consequences are then real. Any problems which result in disenfranchising voters ahead of the next general election will have real costs, as the election results will establish another full five year term.

My recommendation? The planned registration is not a bad idea and it was originally supported by the then Labour Government. Nor do I oppose it. I do oppose the timetable for its introduction and use. My recommendation is that this compulsory voter registration scheme is rolled out after the next general election. I see no reason why all parties would not support this as it has been supported by the previous and current governments. The cost is that it may be more difficult to uncover whatever fraud exists in the current voter registry. However, the benefit is that no one will be disenfranchised even by accident by the introduction of this scheme.

Clearly, the benefit outweighs the cost given what is at stake. Let's hope the Government sees sense and extends the timetable.

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