MPs fear 'partisan' election rules change

Voter registration change could have big impact on 2015 poll
Voter registration change could have big impact on 2015 poll

By Alex Stevenson

Proposed changes to voter registration rules could see millions of voters disenfranchised at the next general election, MPs have warned.

The Commons' political and constitutional reform committee is urging the coalition to change its mind over plans to drop a full household canvass in 2014.

Those who have moved house in the run-up to the next general election will have to fill in a form individually, rather than being added to the household-based system which ministers say is antiquated.

MPs fear the limited canvas planned for the pre-election year will lead to serious inaccuracies which the Electoral Reform Society has warned could lead to a "catastrophic drop" in voter registration levels.

"We have heard serious concerns that the government's current proposals will miss an unacceptably large number of potential electors," the report noted.

"We believe, given the unique circumstances of the change to individual electoral registration, that the government should reconsider its decision not to hold a full household canvass in 2014."

Those opposing the government's plans have already persuaded ministers to reconsider a proposal to allow a 'tick-box' opt-out from voting.

MPs repeated these concerns by arguing that voting is a public duty. But they accepted the government's current proposal that failure to register to vote should not be a criminal offence.

"We're glad to see they have recognised the strength of our concerns about the proposed registration 'opt-out'," Electoral Commission chief executive Peter Wardle said.

ERS chief executive Katie Ghose argued that being on the register was about responsibilities as well as rights.

"It determines how public services are delivered, underpins the right to trial by jury of your peers, and sets how political boundaries are drawn," she commented.

"If the government listens we have the chance make voter registration work."

The Commission, an independent agency, had voiced serious doubts about the government's approach and called for a full 2014 canvass.

"We want the government to give this cross-party report serious consideration and make improvements to the legislation before it is introduced to parliament," Mr Wardle said.

Committee chair Graham Allen said the 2014 canvass and the opt-out were both "essential" to maintain public confidence in the changes.

A failure to do so would mean they are viewed by the public as "unfair and politically partisan", he added.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has already pledged to "carefully consider" concerns about the opt-out, although it is not yet clear that it will abandon its proposal.

The Cabinet Office suggested that there was unlikely to be a shift from the current position on the 2014 canvass, however.

"Under the new system, everyone will be invited to register in 2014 and will receive a number of reminders - if they do not respond they will then be visited at their home by an electoral registration officer to ask them to register," a spokesperson said.

"In addition, there will be publicity to make people aware of the change and we are looking at opening up new ways of registering, including online registration."


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