UK Politics

Q&A: Changes to the way people register to vote

The government is planning to reform the way we register to vote, but what will the changes mean for future elections?

What's in the Bill?

The most important, and controversial element, of the bill is a move to individual voter registration. There are other measures which the government hopes will make voter registration easier in the future as well as administrative changes aimed at improving the running of elections.

What's changing on voter registration?

Everyone who wants to vote must be on the electoral register. In England, Scotland and Wales that register is currently compiled every year by a form filled out by one householder responsible for listing all other eligible voters at that address. Individuals can also update their own entries.

However, the government reforms would mean that in the future everyone must be directly registered. This is called individual electoral registration.

Why is the government bringing in these changes?

They say the aim of the bill is to tackle electoral fraud. Ministers say there are no systematic checks on the information householders provide in their annual form. They say, as such, the current system is vulnerable to abuse.

Under the new system each voter would have to register themselves. The government say that every registration could then be checked against public data to ensure that the electoral register is trusted and secure.

Proponents of individual electoral registration also say an individual register could allow for online elections in the future.

If the bill is passed when we would see any change?

Changes would be phased in from 2014 when it would be compulsory for new voters to be registered individually.

What are the criticisms of the bill?

Critics say individual registration could reduce the number of people registered to vote.

Labour has warned that as many as 10 million people - from groups more likely to vote Labour - could "fall off" the electoral register.

But didn't Labour plan to move to individual registration anyway?

In 2009 Labour published plans to move toward individual electoral registration from 2015 at the earliest but warn the current government are accelerating the timetable and moving at "breakneck speed".

Labour also say that the government has abandoned some of their proposed safeguards to ensure the number of people registered does not fall.

So who is in favour of the changes?

The Electoral Commission has welcomed the change to individual registration which it proposed as far back as 2003.

The commission says it believes the changes proposed "will address the vulnerabilities in the current electoral registration process". However the commission does warn that the bill will also need careful planning to ensure an accurate and complete electoral register in the future.

How many of us are not registered to vote?

Recent research from the Electoral Commission estimates that at least six million people are not on the electoral register. In 2000 it was estimated that just under four million people were unregistered.

What can the government do to get more of us on the register?

The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee suggested the government initially make it a criminal offence to fail to complete a voter registration form although they said this could be reviewed after five years of operation of the new system.

Instead, the government has decided that those failing to fine in a form will be fined.

What other changes will be in the bill?

The bill proposes greater use of the internet for electoral registration and the possibility of getting rid of the annual canvass of all those on the register. It would also mean parish or community council elections would be held on the same day as future general or local government elections.

Will the changes affect all of the UK?

The bill is UK-wide although many of the important changes, for instance the introduction of individual electoral registration, will only affect Great Britain. Voters in Northern Ireland moved to an individual register in 2002.

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