The Electoral Commission

The independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK

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7. Making electoral registration more joined-up

Next steps

Integrating electoral registration into other public services

We want to work with the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and EROs across the UK to explore options to enable people to make an application to register to vote when using other online public services including, for example, as part of their driving licence or passport application or tax return submission.

Better use of public data

We want to work with the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and EROs across the UK to improve opportunities for EROs’ access to data from other public service providers – particularly where that data is held by national rather than local providers – to enable them to target their activity at new electors or those who have recently moved.

Exploring implications of direct or automatic registration

We want to work with the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and EROs across the UK to explore how a more integrated approach to electoral registration could feature greater use of direct registration by EROs, or more automatic enrolment processes (for example, direct enrolment of young people alongside issuing their national insurance number).

Introducing IER and an online registration application service has transformed electoral registration in Great Britain during the last three years. The various governments of the UK now need to build on this important success, and continue to modernise electoral registration to make it simpler and more accessible for voters and more efficient for EROs. We want to see early action to develop an ambitious agenda for further modernising electoral registration during the next five years.

As we have previously highlighted in our series of reports on the implementation of IER in Great Britain, we believe it is time for the UK to evolve the current system, which relies solely on electors taking steps to register themselves, to make electoral registration more joined up with other public services. That means considering direct or automatic enrolment processes which have the potential to deliver more accurate and complete electoral registers more efficiently than current resource intensive canvass processes.

The challenges facing EROs are not unique to the UK – a range of new and established democracies around the world have considered responses to rapidly changing demographic and digital communication trends, and have moved in the direction of more direct or automatic enrolment procedures. The UK can learn from other countries about what works, and we need to implement changes which have the potential for significant improvements to the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers.

Integrating electoral registration into other public services

The popularity of online registration reflects growing public expectations about the availability of online channels for completing transactions, including government services. The availability of online channels to access an increasingly wide range of public services presents opportunities to make electoral registration even simpler for the public and more efficient for EROs.

Some EROs have already worked with local higher education providers to integrate electoral registration applications into student enrolment processes. It was a positive step forward that during the passage through Parliament of the Higher Education and Research Act earlier this year, the UK Government was able to include powers which will enable the new Office for Students (OfS) to require registered providers in England to work with EROs to improve electoral registration for students. We will work with governments and the OfS to ensure that EROs and higher education institutions have effective guidance to help them improve registration by students.

We were also pleased to have been able to work with the UK Government ahead of the 2017 general election to ensure that a wide range of government and public service websites included signposting to the online registration service. On the main GOV.UK site these included transport and driver licensing pages; passport, visa and consular service pages; and benefits and tax credits pages.

Other countries have implemented procedures to enable simultaneous voter registration application alongside accessing other public services. The most well-known example is the USA’s National Voter Registration Act 1993 (commonly known as the “Motor Voter Act”) requiring each US state to offer registration at public service agencies such as motor vehicles departments. Other democracies offer similar opportunities, including in Canada where citizens can apply to be registered when they submit their annual tax return.

Better use of public data

EROs can currently access data held locally by local authorities and others to help identify potential electors and manage their electoral registers, and we have made guidance available about how to identify appropriate data sources and how to manage and use that data. We will also shortly be issuing a good practice resource which uses examples of how EROs have used data to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers in their local area.

We want to see further steps taken by all of the UK’s governments to explore the potential benefits for voters and EROs of enabling access to non-local public data. This could be particularly useful in helping to identify people who have changed address and updated their details with other public services, for example when they have applied for a driving licence or passport. The experience of confirmation matching during the transition to IER in Great Britain also highlights the potential to simplify the process by which electors’ identities are verified before being added to the register.

Earlier this year the Digital Economy Act received Royal Assent following approval by the UK Parliament. The Act includes provisions which are intended to make it easier for public bodies to share data they hold in order to improve the delivery of public services to citizens. We will explore further with the Cabinet Office Modernising Electoral Registration Programme what opportunities there are for using these provisions to improve the compilation and maintenance of electoral registers, in particular using appropriately reliable data so that EROs can better identify people who are not accurately registered.

Direct or automatic registration

Several countries have already implemented forms of direct or automatic electoral registration to help meet challenges similar to those now facing EROs in Great Britain, including Australia, Canada and various US states. These systems enable those with responsibility for maintaining the electoral register to register electors automatically using reliable and trusted information from other public sources, or to update their details when they move without the elector having to “re-register” at their new address.

In Australia, legislation allows the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to directly enrol citizens or update their details on the electoral roll based on information received from other government agencies, including the federal social security and national driver license agencies. The AEC writes to prospective electors to inform them that they intend to add their name to the roll or update their details, while also giving the elector an opportunity to change their details if necessary. Data published by the AEC shows that during the six months between December 2016 and May 2017, just under 55% of all new, re-enrolments and updated enrolments were received via their Federal Direct Enrolment and Update programme.

A recent analysis of automatic voter registration (AVR) in the US state of Oregon also highlighted a range of benefits for voters and electoral administrators:

AVR strengthens democracy by expanding and broadening the electorate. AVR’s streamlined systems can save states and localities significant costs, make the voter registration lists more accurate and up to date, and increase the security of the voting system. AVR is the next logical step in creating an efficient, secure, and modern voter registration system for the 21st century.

Center for American Progress, 2017

We recognise that introducing more direct or automatic registration processes would be a significant change to electoral registration policy for the UK, and also that there may be concerns about the implications of moving away from requiring individual citizens to take direct personal responsibility for their own electoral registration. Nonetheless, we believe it is important to continue to explore the implications, possible benefits and costs of more fundamental changes to the UK’s electoral registration framework as well as the more immediate and incremental improvements identified above.

Elections and referendums