Wed, 02 Sep 2009

Voting is optional but registration is compulsory, as is sharing your personal data

This past week-end, as many other households, I received a letter from my local council's Electoral Services Manager. It was accompanied by a Voter Registration Form and a freepost envelope. I considered ignoring it, but soon realised that this was not option. It also became the occasion to shatter a few misunderstandings I had about UK voting registration.

Voter registration documents enclosed

Here's the cover letter interspersed with my comments:

Dear Resident

Re: Voter Registration Form Reminder

In early August, we sent you a voter registration form. We've not received your completed form yet, so please find enclosed another form, which you must complete and send to us. It's easy to fill in. Just write the names of all eligible voters living in your household or let us know if there's no one eligible living there. Simply send it back to us in the freepost envelope provided.

I never received this earlier form. I'm glad to learn it's "easy", "simply", peasy!

First interesting technicality is "eligible voters". To vote in UK Parliamentary general elections, one needs to be British, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, or a qualifying Commonwealth citizen (with leave to enter or remain in the UK, or not requiring such leave); while to vote in local elections, one needs to be British, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, a citizen of a European Union country or a qualifying Commonwealth citizen. Long term residents, even with an indefinite leave to remain, who are not from the Commonwealth or the EU, never get the right to vote for local elections. This is discriminatory.

Here's why you need to fill and send us your voter registration form:

1. Make sure you have the right to make your voice heard in next year's elections. The information on voter registration forms is used to produce a Register of Electors (or Voters List), published on 1 December each year. To be eligible to vote in the next local and general elections, you must be on the register. You do not have to vote but to have the choice, you must return your form.

This is clear, I only need to return the form and register on the voters list, if I want to engage in the democratic process and use my optional right to vote. Unfortunately, as we'll see later, this will be shown to be incorrect.

2. The Register of Electors is also used by credit reference agencies. If your name's not on the register, you could find that you are unable to obtain credit for a mortgage, mobile phone, credit card or loan.

A reminder that in the UK, it is impossible to register only to vote. When one registers to vote, one also agrees for all the provided details to be passed on to the credit reference agencies. It's presented as a benefit, but one you cannot opt out of. No choice.

It is certainly possible to obtain most of the listed services without being on the Register of Electors though it may make the process a bit more difficult (I have successfully obtained a mortgage, mobile phone contracts and credit cards). If being on the Register of Electors was required for all these services, this would constitute further discrimination for residents who are not Commonwealth or EU citizen.

This is the main issue and the reason I have so far refrained to register. As a non British EU citizen, I can't vote in general elections anyway. I'd love to vote in local elections but not at the cost of surrendering more of my privacy to the big three credit check agencies. There's no compelling reason for private companies such as credit reference agencies to have details of all who register to vote. (This is made even worse by the fact that it is not possible to lock one's credit record, as is common in the US, hence further facilitating identity fraud.) A few years ago I did research whether I could register solely to vote but realised it just is not possible.

In addition to the full register, an edited register is for sale to anyone, including other commercial outfits, for any purpose. One can opt out of this register. However, opt outs never work well and it appears that no one is keen to keep producing such an edited register that only includes the names of those who have not opted out, so its existence may be limited.

(Anonymous registration is the one option available where one registers solely to vote, however, unfortunately, this is restricted to individuals whose safety would be at risk if their name or address were listed on the electoral register.)

3. In October every year, we visit households that have not returned the form so that we can get their details to go on the the register of Electors. This costs the council money, so returning your form can save us money, which we can then spend on other valuable services we provide our residents.

This is so vague, it does not work as a carrot. What is the budget for visiting households? If a substantial part of this budget is saved, to what "other valuable services" will this money be redistributed to? As is, it's not a motivation to fill in the form.

4. It is a legal requirement to return your form. Under the Representation of the People's Act 1983, if you do not return your form, you could be fined up to £1,000.

After the carrot, the stick. That's the biggest misunderstanding I had of the system. I was convinced that voting is optional - this is indeed the case. And consequently I was also convinced that registering to vote is also optional - and I was wrong. Whether you intend to vote or not, you have to register on the electoral register and have your details given to the credit check agencies.

The reference given to the Representation of the People Act 1983 is misleading. Browsing through the act I couldn't spot any mention of compulsion. The StatuteLaw database returns 78 results for a search on 'Representation of the People', so finding the right amendment is difficult and time consuming. I eventually discovered that section 23(3) of the The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 (No. 341) indeed makes it compulsory to register when asked to do so by a registration officer. This amendment came into force in February 2001.

Electoral Registration Officers have a duty to ensure that every households register eligible voters. Before taking to court those that avoid registering, Registration Officers must not only send forms and visit households, but also inspect all records held in databases they have access to, such as council databases.

If you are already on the register, you still need to confirm that with us by simply sending a text message, phoning or going online - you'll find the details on your voter registration form.

Currently, canvassing is done with one form per household with space for limited personal details: surname, first name and nationality. Only one person signs the form. This will get much more personal. Section 30 of the recent Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 provides for a process of introducing individual electoral registration from 1 July 2010. In a briefing document, the Electoral Commission mentions the first stage will be "voluntary collection of personal identifiers - National Insurance number, signature and date of birth - from electors, to make sure that the conditions are appropriate before any move to compulsory provision of identifiers."

My completed form is in the post.

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