Wednesday, 21 January 2015

UK voting reform threatens the franchise

Not the least of the intriguing sub-plots in this year's UK General Election is the fact that many people won't be able to vote. It's difficult to count how many, though it might be a million or more, concentrated disproportionately among the young, the vulnerable and the poor: and the reason for this latest debacle is called Individual Electoral Registration.

It was brought in by the coalition to fight back against fraud, for the previous way that Britain has registered voters has been by household - a technique liable to manipulation, both by powerful local electoral networks or, potentially, by whoever's the most powerful and vocal member of that household. Postal voting, in particular, was thought to be a problem.

But the remedy has a very worrying downside: many younger, more indigent and poorer voters aren't going to be registered, and they perhaps don't realise it yet. Students, for instance, used to be signed up by their university, hall of residence by hall of residence. Now they're going to have to do it themselves, or perhaps trek home (or get a postal vote from) their parental address. If they have one. The Electoral Reform Society's dry run (and you can find their report here) found just over nine million voters at some risk of being erased once the lists are changed. Local councils have discretion over what to do about these people. Write to them? Try to data match and roll them over? It's up to them. Now things went as well as could be expected on that front. Last autumn, 5.5m people were 'missing' from automatic matchups between old lists and Department of Work and Pensions records. Now that figure's more like 3.6m, but with more than two million having signed up themselves, nine out of ten have successfully been transferred - mainly because their circumstances haven't changed. That leaves the remainder of the adult population who now have to sign up. They're doing so, but there's probably over a million out there who haven't applied. Time is now very short for them to make their voices heard.

Putting to one side the siren voices of charlatans such as Russell Brand, with their superficially appealing rejectionism and fashionable calls not to vote, young people have had a raw deal out of this government. They've lost Educational Maintenance Allowances. They've had a great big tax called student fees (amounting to an 11% tax hike) slapped on them. They've endured high and rising youth unemployment, even as more normal economic circumstances began to reassert themselves. All while older, and mostly richer, Britons have pensioner bonds, free television licenses, higher and earnings-linked pensions, free bus passes and free prescriptions handed out. Do you ever wonder why that happens? It's because they vote, they vote in large numbers, and the party that they more often than not support is in office.

So the most urgent thing to say is this: if you've moved home in the last couple of years, or if you're a student, go online and make sure that you're signed up to vote. You probably are, and there are transitional procedures in place that mean that most on the 2014 rolls will at least be able to cast a ballot in the forthcoming General Election. But there's still a risk that you've been bumped off the rolls. Right now. It's easy, it's quick and it's important to register. It doesn't really matter how you vote, but it does matter that you make your choice heard. Because if you haven't a made a choice yourself, how can you criticise those that our leaders make?