Data-matching: Electoral Commission throws a spanner in the database

By Alex Stevenson

Government plans to meddle with who gets to vote in British elections appear to have suffered another setback today.

All parties support moves to switch from household registration to individual electoral registration (IER). But there are fears six million voters could fall off the list of those eligible to vote, and the coalition has been under serious pressure to come up with ways to fix this.

Its solution is 'data-matching', which would see the government use its other databases – for driving licences, benefit payments and the like – to retain up to two-thirds of the current electoral register. Ministers have placed great store by this – constitutional reform minister Mark Harper, as recently as February 9th, stated: "I am confident we now have a set of proposals behind which we can all unite."

Not so much. The first pilot scheme covering 22 local authorities, the Electoral Commission regretfully informs the public today, delivered inconclusive results. They recommend "well-constructed trials" to test data-matching further. Ouch!

The Electoral Reform Society, which has been fairly trenchant in its criticisms of the switch to IER, doesn't hold back today, either. Its evaluation report of data-matching finds that it would take up a lot of local authority staff's time and wouldn't help identify those who are missing from the register.

Here's what its chief executive Katie Ghose has to say: "The government are looking for a quick fix to address widespread concerns over the huge drop-off in registered voters predicted for the switch to IER. Data matching is not it.

"Even in a best case scenario, it will do nothing to increase registration and it seems that the government is putting a lot of faith in a process that the Electoral Commission says needs further testing."

The coalition's proposals to introduce IER by the time of the next general election remain as unpopular as ever.

Will this affect the recent detente which the Tories and Lib Dems have been basking in? Labour, which had screamed and howled against the proposals initially, has appeared more pliant in recent weeks. News that data-matching looks far from convincing could give them an opportunity to return to their default position on constitutional matters: grumpy opposition.