Analysis: Why voter registration matters

Another bout of constitutional meddling is threatening to disenfranchise millions of voters.

By Alex Stevenson

There's a lot resting on MPs' debates about the government's plans to introduce individual voter registration, the latest round of which takes place later today. This issue is about the most fundamental right in a democracy. As the clichés put it, it's what our ancestors fought and died for. Basic rules about how UK citizens get to exercise that right are about to be changed. This, surely, deserves attention.

Everyone who votes has to be registered to do so. That's a given. The change about to take place is about how that process takes place.

On the face of it this shift is a simple one. Up until now registration has been carried out on a household-by-household basis. Only one person from each household has to fill in the paperwork, which covers all those who live at that particular address. All very neat. The problem is innumerable cases of electoral fraud have eroded public confidence in the system.

This is why ministers say switching to a new system, in which each individual is responsible for getting themselves registered, is such a good idea. And all would, no doubt, be hunky dory were it not for the fact that the transition could have a huge impact on the size of Britain's electorate.

MPs, currently investigating the extent to which the change could result in a decline in the number of registered voters, have already uncovered some shocking statistics. In suburban areas the drop-off could be three per cent. But in poorer urban areas, where the population moves around a lot, the reduction could be as much as 35%. That's simply enormous. It would prompt a comprehensive redrawing of boundary changes, regardless of the constituency upheaval in the run-up to 2015.

Such alarmist figures are mere speculation, according to constitutional reform minister Mark Harper. He says the parties have nothing substantial on which to back up this argument. This conveniently ignores Northern Ireland, which made exactly this transition less than a decade ago. The result? A 20% reduction in the size of the electorate. It appears there is trouble ahead.

MPs are set to debate the issue in parliament later, on an afternoon when the topic at hand is controlled by the opposition. Labour is appalled by the proposed changes because they could remove many of their supporters from the electoral register. The whiff of constitutional meddling for partisan advantage is rather pungent, that's for sure.

But this issue goes beyond party politics. It touches upon more basic issues of political engagement – and disengagement. The Electoral Reform Society fears that already uneven distributions of voter registration and turnout will only get worse as a result of the changes, reinforcing the political alienation of black and ethnic minority groups, as well as young people.

"Official turnout statistics (based on the registered electorate) hide the true extent of this political dissonance in society," it warns in its submissions to MPs investigating the issue.

"People who aren't registered to vote miss out on opportunities to influence political decisions that affect their lives at both national and local level. Their voices are not heard and their opinions and needs are not addressed."

The Electoral Commission has argued that switching to the new system is the right thing to do in the long run, because it will help improve the security of the system and recognise people's personal involvement in democracy.

But even they are very worried by the impact of the changes. How they're implemented will prove critical to limiting their impact. Will the coalition be able to overcome its inherent conflict of interest as it strives to make the situation as fair as possible?

As the Westminster world continues to focus on the fallout from a single secretary of state's resignation, MPs will be debating a much bigger issue later. The democratic rights of millions of voters are at stake.