On 11 March 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the former Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee’s report, An Electoral System Fit for Today? More to Be Done,  which was published on 8 July 2020.

Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013

The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 was a major reform of electoral registration in Great Britain. The act abolished the previous system which dated from the Victorian era of registration by ‘heads of household’. It meant that, for the first time, registration was placed in the hands of individuals, with stronger checks on identity and a new online application system intended to make registering more straightforward and accessible.

The act also provided for a range of administrative reforms to the running of elections, including changes to the annual canvass system used by local authorities to maintain their registers. Together, these reforms were intended to help improve the accuracy and completeness of registers and support Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) in managing elections, helping to ensure that the democratic integrity of the system was improved and maintained.

The committee’s findings

The committee found that the 2013 act has helped to make electoral registers more accurate. However, the committee also voiced concerns that they remain significantly incomplete. It said this was particularly the case with under-registered groups such as young people, frequent home movers, care home residents and people from BAME backgrounds. Indeed, the committee contended that millions of voters may still be missing from electoral registers.

The committee called for urgent measures to address this issue. Noting that incomplete registers can only be damaging to the integrity of elections, it said the Government “must ensure that it treats improving accuracy and completeness as a major priority in future reforms to electoral registration and administration”.

Among its other recommendations, the committee called upon the Government to pursue further modernisation of registers, including piloting automatic registration for attainers and introducing assisted registration to prompt eligible voters to register when accessing other public services. The committee also recommended that the Government should publish targets for improving registration rates among under-registered groups and work closely with the Electoral Commission, EROs, local communities and third sector organisations to hit those targets, with a focus on civic education and effective, long-term engagement.

The committee also noted evidence which suggested the current system is confusing for administrators, campaigners and voters, with rules spread out over a number of different statutes and important matters not properly clarified in legislation. The committee reported that it shared the views of a joint report from the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission which called for urgent reform. The committee called upon the Government to adopt those proposals at the earliest opportunity.

The Government’s response

In the Government’s response published in September 2020, Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution Chloe Smith outlined the actions the Government had taken to modernise and improve the registration system. These included canvass reform and the introduction of online registration. The Government’s response also set out its priorities for action, such as measures to mitigate the impacts of large registration volumes on administrators as well as improving the use of data.

On improving accuracy and completeness of the electoral register as a major priority area, the Government said it believed that registering to vote and voting is a civic duty and that it encouraged all eligible citizens to do so.

Yet it also said that the responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate electoral registers rests with EROs, and that it was Government’s role to provide EROs with the tools they need to meet this responsibility and to identify and remove barriers to registration which some electors may experience. It said that it had taken action in this area, including the introduction of online registration, convening an Accessibility of Elections Working Group, and amending legislation to make it easier for EROs in lower tier local authorities in two-tier local authority areas to access data held by the higher tier authority.

On modernisation plans, the Government response said that ministers had no plans to introduce automatic registration, as it would “[contradict] the principle which underpins individual electoral registration, that individuals are responsible for registering and that this should be done at a time and place of their choosing”. The response added that automatic voter registration could lead to less accurate electoral registers, especially if people have recently moved.

Regarding the recommendations made by the Law Commissions, the Government said that it welcomed their findings and would consider the issues raised in conjunction with its wider programme of electoral integrity reforms. However, the response added that any process on consolidation would inevitably be a longer-term project, as with the implementation of most Law Commission consolidation programmes.

Elections Bill 2021–22

The Elections Bill, which has completed its passage through the House of Commons and is due to have its second reading in the House of Lords on 23 February 2022, would introduce a range of changes to electoral law in the UK.

The measures contained within the bill include:

  • Requiring voters in UK parliamentary elections and local elections in England to produce photo ID at polling stations in order to vote.
  • Introducing measures to prevent postal vote harvesting, the process by which someone collects and hands in multiple completed postal ballot packs to a polling station.
  • Removing the 15-year time limit for overseas voters being able to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
  • Removing automatic voting rights for some EU citizens in local elections in England.
  • Enabling the Government to designate a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission and preventing the Electoral Commission from bringing criminal prosecutions.
  • Changing the rules on campaign expenditure, the activities of third-party campaigners and joint campaigning.
  • Requiring digital campaign material to include a digital imprint with information on who produced the material.

The Government has argued the bill would strengthen democracy in the UK. However, opposition parties contend that the new voter ID requirements would reduce turnout, especially amongst people who do not already have access to photo ID. Opposition parties have also criticised other provisions in the bill including those concerning oversight of the Electoral Commission, contending that it would damage the commission’s independence.

For a full examination of the legislation, please see: House of Lords Library, ‘Elections Bill’, 27 January 2022.

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This article was first published on 4 February 2022. It was updated on 24 February to include a rescheduled date for the debate to take place in the House of Lords.

Cover image: Sign photo created by freepik.