Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dangers remain with electoral registration changes: Norwich and Cambridge could be amongst the most affected areas

The government is planning to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) in June 2014.  A new report and data released from the Electoral Commission suggests its implementation still poses a risk for British democracy.

My earlier research on the likely effects of IER suggested that this would:
  • improve confidence in elections, but
  • result in a considerable decline in levels of electoral registration, a concern when electoral registration levels are already low in the UK.  This would affect particular groups such as students, the mobile and young disproportionately.
  • lead to a considerable increase in the costs of running UK elections.  
  • lead to issues with data management and a need for staff training
The government is trying to prevent a decline though 'data-matching' - use the government's existing records such as the DWP database to improve re-register people automatically.  A new report from the Electoral Commission has said that plans to implement IER are 'on track' but there remains risks:
  • 52% of electoral officials are concerned that they will not have enough money to implement data-matching effectively
  • a system for allowing online registration has not been fully tested yet
  • although re-registration rates were higher than last thought, there are uneven regional effects ranging from 46.9% in Kensington and Chelsea to 86.4%.  'Students, young adults and private renters' are also less likely to be re-registered.  
Which areas are most affected?

I had a quick look at some of the Electoral Commission's data on which areas were the most and least affected.  What percentage of people are on the electoral register but cannot be matched against the DWP database?  In my own local area of the East of England, the local authorities most/least affected are:

Local Authority / Percentage of registered electorate that could not be matched

Cambridge 36.7%  (33,205 people)
Norwich 26.2% (26,941 people)
Watford 22.3%
Luton 20.6%
Colchester 21.1%
Tendering 13.0%
Broadland 13.8%
Castle Point 13.0%
Rochford 12.8%

The breakdown by wards gives us more detail and shows how students are a key group who might be affected.  Amongst the highest wards were:

Market (Cambridge) 75.2% (4813 people)
Wivenhoe Cross (Colchester) 55.2% (3757 people)
University (Norwich) 46.5% (3521 people)

Implementation is everything when it comes to government policy and it is no different with elections.  There needs to be adequate funding available for electoral officials in local government if British elections are not to be adversely affected.  These reforms come at a time when budgets are already being squeezed because of public spending cuts and the number of elections that held is increasing.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Electoral registration changes hit a set-back: A new way forward

There was bad news for British democracy on Wednesday.  The new system of electoral registration being introduced in Britain next year hit a set-back.

Soon, every citizen in Britain will need to register individually and provide key personal identifiers in order to register.  When this was introduced in Northern Ireland there was a significant decline in levels of electoral registration.  Research has suggested that a further decline will occur when implemented in Britain too.  This is especially troubling since one in five of eligible voters are already thought to not be registered.  I wrote a blog about the changes on the Democratic Audit website earlier in the week.  But things are moving quickly. 

One idea that the government has been exploring to prevent any drop is data-mining.  This involves registration officers using other government databases, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Student Loans Company etc., to find the names and addresses of people who are not on the register.  They can then be written to and invited to register.

The government and Electoral Commission published reports on the effectiveness of data-matching pilots on Wednesday.  This or its consequences was not picked up by any media, as far as I am aware, perhaps because there was no Electoral Commission or Cabinet office press release.  Sadly for British democracy, the news is not good. 

The first thing to say is that the pilots were not a perfect experiment.  The Electoral Commission noted that registration officers were hindered by ‘delays and… [needed] a greater level of support’ from the Cabinet Office (p.2).  However, the headlines are that:
  1. The databases used produced low levels of new electoral registrations.  If managed differently, there might have been greater returns, the Electoral Commission suggested and the evaluations might have been able to be more certain about whether these were really new registrations or not.
  2.  It was very expensive.  Registration officers therefore could not absorb this practice into their everyday practice without significantly more money.  Cabinet Office did not publish their expenditure (p.4) so there might be more costs involved in managing the process centrally. This comes at a time of government spending cuts.
The Electoral Commission has therefore concluded that the pilot does ‘not justify the national roll out’ of data-matching.  This means that we may still be set for a ‘car-crash’ drop in levels of electoral registration.

We should not be hasty in casting data-mining aside.  After all, it did find some new voters.  And what is the monetary value of a registered voter or a vote?  Whatever the state of the public finances, democracy must not be compromised. However, there is clearly a need to explore further ways to boost voter registration.  

A British Motor Voter Act?

One way that I have suggested that this can be achieved is for the UK to learn from the US experience.  In the US in the 1990s a law was passed that expanded the number of locations and opportunities whereby eligible citizens could apply to register to vote. In particular, citizens were to be given a voter registration application when they applied for or renewed a driver’s license, or when applying for (or receiving) services at certain other public offices. Today, a huge proportion of new registrants use this mechanism to register to vote in the US. Data from the US Electoral Assistance Commission shows that 37.1 per cent of registration forms were submitted via motor vehicle agencies in 2010. Over 18 million citizens used this method in 2008. Subsequent empirical studies showed how this (and other methods) could improve registration rates (see here for an overview). Researchers later argued that the effect on registration could have been greater had federal agencies worked harder to enforce the Act.

This might be a more promising way to improve voter registration.  When we register for a drivers licence (or access another government service) could a box be provided for us to tick so that we can have our name added to the electoral register?  Electoral registration officers could then check and update their records.
No doubt, that would cost money.  But elections and democratic representation are worth it.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Individual electoral registration: a car crash on the horizon for British democracy?

I have been writing and blogging about the individual electoral registration a lot over the past few two years or so.  The legislation has now been passed and we edge nearer and nearer to it becoming a reality.

The Democratic Audit have published the latest of my blogs today, which considers the implementation stages of the changes that could have significant consequences for British democracy.

The blog is available here:  Individual electoral registration still needs a lot of work, if it is not to be a car crash for British democracy

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Why are failures of electoral management everywhere?

Examples of errors and incompetence in the organisation of elections can now be readily found in many democracies around the world.  Consider:
  • In the UK 2010 general election, a number of polling stations run out of ballot papers or had queues which meant that citizens were unable to cast their vote.

  • A recent report on the running of the Canadian elections showed that over 500 serious errors were made, on average, per electoral district in the 2011 federal elections.  These were so serious that the election result was initially annulled by a judge.
  • Reports from the Malaysian 2013 elections that officials were not shaking the bottles of indelible ink before marking voters fingers.  The result was that some could wash off the ink and vote twice. (See the Video on the right) 

What is going on?  Surely running an election can't be that difficult?  After all, many democracies have been doing this for years without making such terrible errors.

Last week I gave a conference paper at the Annual Workshop on Electoral Integrity at Harvard University on why electoral officials are increasingly having problems.  I interviewed many officials in the UK about the challenges that they face.  It seems, that running elections is becoming increasingly difficult. Challenges in the UK include:

  • Greater legal complexity - a greater diversity and number of elections makes them harder to administer
  • More actors involved in elections - devolution and the fragmentation of central government makes elections more difficult to co-ordinate
  • Increased population movements - increased immigration and high levels of internal migration make the register difficult to compile.
  • The rise of social media - errors are reported more quickly and loudly because of the rise of Twitter etc
Elections have therefore become much more difficult to administer in the UK and it is more difficult to maintain high levels of satisfaction amongst citizens with electoral services.

Some of these changes may be specific to the UK, but most can be found in many established democracies.  This means that concerns about electoral integrity are no longer the preserve of new and emerging democracies.  They are likely to be found in the backyard of the established democracies that were once thought of as exemplars to the world for the practice of elections.

Ballot papers from the 2010 British General election
The paper can be downloaded here
For information on the conference and other papers click here 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

US Supreme Court to further ignite the politics of election administration?

Voting rights rally in New York, 2011
The US Supreme Court could today set in motion the process of striking down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

This rules that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination need to get permission from the federal government before enacting changes to voting procedures.  It was a historic victory for the civil rights movement.

However, Shelby County, Alabama claim that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it reauthorised Section 5, which was only ever supposed to be temporary.

It also claims that such restrictions are not necessary because black voter registration and turnout rates now are high and that black elected officials are commonplace.

However, if the Act is overturned, expect the politics of election law to become more, not less furious.

Defenders of Section 5 cite continued forms of discrimination.  Section 5 was used to prevent changes to early voting and introduce identification requirements in these key states.  As Rick Hasan notes, if Section 5 goes, 'expect to see more brazen partisan gerrymanders, cutbacks in early voting and imposition of tougher voting and registration rules in the formerly covered jurisdictions.'

The US Supreme Court to hear Shelby v Holder
This will inevitably lead to a backlash from the Obama administration, the Democratic party and the civil rights movement.  There were continued problems in the 2012 US Presidential election, which the president promised to fix.  He recently announced the formation of the 'bipartisan' Bauer-Ginsberg commission in his State of the Union speech to improve voting procedures.

Expect the ever-unresolved politics of election administration in the US to rumble on....