The Parliamentary Information Office is, with constitutional pundits generally, following closely the progress through Parliament of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill
The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill had its second reading - the first chance for members to debate general aspects of the bill - in the House of Lords earlier this week.
In the programme for Government, the administration committed to an individual electoral registration system that would "Reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration."
In June 2011 the Government published a White Paper and draft legislation on Individual Electoral Registration. A public consultation was held on the proposals and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) carried out pre-legislative scrutiny. Also, in July and September 2011, the Government published draft legislation in relation to certain provisions concerning the administration and conduct of elections for pre-legislative scrutiny by the PCRC. The Government responded to the PCRC report and the public consultation in February.
The clauses and schedules in Part 1 of the Bill relating to Individual Electoral Registration will:
- Provide that each elector must apply individually to be registered to vote after the transition to the new system.
- Make transitional arrangements over two years, including using data matching to verify entries, and providing for the ‘carry forward’ of electors who are not automatically verified and fail to register under the new system in the first year, so that they remain on the first register published under the new system (likely to be the register used for the 2015 general election).
- Create a legislative framework to allow alternative channels for registration, such as online registration, to be offered.
- Provide for the use of data matching to verify applications, check existing entries in registers and find individuals who do not currently appear on the register.
- Make provision for an annual canvass which is compatible with the new registration system and provide a power to amend or abolish the annual canvass in future, subject to a report by the Electoral Commission and an order requiring the approval by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
- Ensure that all those wishing to vote by post or proxy will need to be registered under the new registration system to utilise these voting methods after the first annual canvass under the new system.
- Introduce a civil penalty for those who fail to make an application when required to do so by an Electoral Registration Officer ("ERO").
- Extend the electoral timetable for UK Parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 working days which will also have the consequence of altering a number of the deadlines within the timetable (in particular the date for delivery of nominations) which are fixed to the start of the electoral timetable. This will allow more time for the postal vote process and facilitate the administration of elections more generally.
- Provide for there to be two interim publication dates at UK Parliamentary elections and other specified polls, where an election is pending, on which notices of alteration to the electoral register must be published.
- As a consequence of an extended electoral timetable, move the deadline for appointing polling and counting agents at UK Parliamentary elections from 2 to 5 days before polling day.
- Make changes to the timing of polling place reviews in Great Britain to bring them in line with the five year Parliamentary terms established by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, and the five year cycle for UK Parliamentary boundary reviews implemented by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.
- Address an oversight in existing legislation to enable a UK Parliamentary election candidate jointly nominated by two or more registered political parties to use, on the ballot paper, an emblem registered by one of the nominating parties.
- Allow Police Community Support Officers ("PCSOs") to enter polling stations (as police constables can currently).
- Remove the automatic postponement of parish and community council elections in England and Wales that currently occurs when a Parliamentary or European Parliamentary general election falls on the ordinary day for local government elections.
- Enable regulations to be made to place EROs under a duty to give notifications about rejected postal votes, and specify the circumstances where this duty arises. It is proposed that the regulations place EROs under a duty to inform (after an election) electors whose postal votes have been rejected because the postal vote identifiers (that is, signature and date of birth) did not match those stored on record for that elector. This will help voters who submit their postal ballot packs in good faith to avoid their vote being rejected at successive elections.
- Provide that the Secretary of State may, upon a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, withhold or reduce a Returning Officer’s fee for reasons of poor performance.
“The aim of the bill is to tackle electoral fraud, to increase the number of people registered to vote, to give people greater ownership of their own registration and to improve the integrity of the register.
“The bill also includes provisions to improve the administration and conduct of elections, which will serve to increase voter participation, and to make a number of improvements to the running of elections.”
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour) commented on the first part of the bill, the timetable and the approach to the introduction of individual voter registration. He compared it to the current system and said:
“Individual electoral registration means that you have to fill in a form individually and produce proof - including a national insurance number, date of birth and something else - that you are the person who lives at the particular address. This is much more difficult - not remotely impossible but more difficult - and the consequence is almost bound to be that fewer people will register.”
In the introduction to his speech, Lord Baker of Dorking (Conservative), spoke of the independent role of the House of Lords in electoral matters. He said:
“My Lords, it is entirely appropriate that this unelected second chamber should be debating, probing, examining and questioning the electoral system in our country. As none of us is elected, we can approach this with a degree of objectivity and dispassion.”
Lord Wills (Labour), who has introduced individual electoral registration in the past, spoke from his experience. He said:
“As we have heard, the latest estimate suggests that at least 6 million people eligible to vote were not registered to do so in December 2010. The problem is all the worse because those eligible voters who are not on the register are disproportionately concentrated in particular groups: young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally, those living in areas of high social deprivation, and ethnic minorities.”
The debate will continue with line by line scrutiny in committee stage after the summer recess. Lord Wallace of Saltaire concluded:
“We will return to many of these issues in committee. We have taken on board everything that has been said in the debate. We are confident that by going through the transition process and learning from the Northern Irish experience, we will come out with a register that is at least as complete as it is at the moment, and more accurate.”
The Parliamentary Information Office will watch the committee stages with considerable interest and report on the outcome.