Our report on the UK Government's draft statutory instrument to reform the annual canvass

Introduction

This response sets out our views on the UK Government’s draft statutory instrument to amend the process for conducting the annual canvass of electors.

We have assessed:

  • whether the current annual canvass system meets its objective of identifying people who should be added to the register, and identifying deletions from the register
  • the extent to which the objective of the canvass would be met if the order proposed by the UK Government was brought into force
  • the merits of alternative ways of meeting the objective of the canvass

Summary

We welcome the UK Government’s proposals for reform of the annual canvass process and see these as an important first step in modernising electoral registration.

We have assessed the canvass reform proposals against the objective of the canvass, which is to identify eligible electors who should be added to the register and necessary deletions from the register.

The canvass reform proposals should result in greater efficiency, allowing Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) to focus their increasingly limited resources on areas of greatest need thereby better meeting the objective of the canvass.

However, the success of canvass reform is highly dependent on new data-sharing mechanisms and careful planning and implementation activities being completed in good time ahead of the start of the 2020 annual canvass, which will commence from July 2020.

Beyond the changes proposed in the draft regulations, additional reforms could further improve the efficiency of the electoral registration process. These include:

  • enhanced digital data sharing between organisations holding public data and EROs;
  • automated and automatic registration; and
  • the integration of electoral registration into other public service transactions.

We have conducted feasibility studies on each of these reforms and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the findings with the Government and other interested groups.

The canvass process now

In recent decades there have been significant changes to key aspects of the electoral registration system, notably, the introduction of year-round rolling registration in 2001, and individual electoral registration and online registration in 2014. These changes have meant that the annual canvass is no longer the only way for EROs to identify new electors or changes of address.

Under the current rigid statutory requirements for the canvass, EROs have to carry out the same steps in order to obtain a response from every address, even if there has been no change in the people living there who are eligible to be registered.

This means that EROs are unable to focus their resources in areas of greatest need, and a disproportionate amount of resource is required to be directed at canvass activity which does not identify eligible electors who should be added to the register or necessary deletions from the register.

We do not believe that the current system is meeting the objective of the canvass as well as it should, nor do we believe the model is sustainable in the short to medium term. The current process is characterised by inefficiency, with a disproportionate amount of resource required to be directed to activity which is delivering declining results.

The canvass process now: accordions

The proposed canvass process

The new canvass process should allow EROs in Great Britain to focus their resources in areas of greatest need, and better meet the objective of the canvass than the current system.

Giving EROs access to robust national-level data about the resident population will help them to identify addresses where there is likely to have been a change in the people who are eligible to be registered to vote.

The proposed process will reduce the cost of the activity required for properties where there has been no change of residents; EROs will be able to focus their efforts at addresses where there has been change.

These changes are highly dependent on new data sharing mechanisms, which need careful implementation in good time ahead of the start of the 2020 annual canvass, which will commence from July 2020.

The proposed canvass process: accordions

Other ways for EROs to get the information they need

Beyond the changes proposed in the draft regulations, there are further reforms which would help EROs to better meet the objective of the canvass in future.

The UK’s governments should build on the use of DWP data at the start of the annual canvass, and explore additional ways to improve the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers. They should learn from the ways other countries use data to compile and maintain electoral registers.

EROs could use robust data from other public organisations throughout the year to identify people who are not currently registered. Taking steps to encourage registration applications throughout the year would improve the match with DWP data at the start of the canvass. This reform could be taken further by introducing systems of automated or automatic registration.

The electoral registration process should also be more widely integrated into other public service transactions. This would enable simultaneous voter registration applications alongside accessing other public services, and offer further potential benefits in relation to improved accuracy and completeness of the registers.

We have carried out feasibility studies to show how these changes could be implemented in the UK. We will publish these in summer 2019, and look forward to discussing the findings with governments and other interested groups.

Other ways for EROs to get the information they need: accordions

Context

Last updated: 25 July 2019
Next review: 10 July 2020