'Remarkable' rise in number of people registering to vote

Parties will hope surge in interest, particularly in marginal seats, leads to improved turnout.

Councils across Britain have reported an "unprecedented" surge in the number of people registering to vote in next Thursday's election.

Amid signs that the country is heading for the closest result in a generation, a survey by The Independent has discovered the vast majority of councils experienced significant rises in voter registration in the run-up to last week's deadline.

From the south coast of England to central Scotland, local authorities are reporting increases of up to 17 per cent in registration.

The trend is consistent across major cities, suburban constituencies and rural seats; and is pronounced in areas with crucial marginal seats. Returning officers attributed the "remarkable" increase to the interest generated by the three televised leaders' debate and the three-horse nature of the contest.

The London Borough of Islington said 135,769 people had registered to vote on 6 May, compared with 116,176 at the time of the last election in 2005, a rise of 17 per cent. In neighbouring Hackney, registrations have gone up 15 per cent.

The number of voters on the electoral roll has increased by 8 per cent in Leeds, equivalent to an extra 18,000 voters. It also went up by 6 per cent in Newcastle and by 4 per cent in both Sheffield and Manchester.

A call centre set up by Manchester City Council received more than 1,000 calls a day after the first leaders' debate on 15 April. The authority reported an "unprecedented" 7,000 people registering to vote during this month.

Officials in Leicester reported a late rush with 1,800 voters signing up in the week before the 20 April deadline. The council's electoral services manager, Alison Scott, said the "phones hardly stopped ringing".

She said: "We anticipated a surge in enquiries, so made sure we had enough staff to answer the helpline number. But we weren't expecting to be handling 400 calls a day – we certainly didn't see a late surge like this in 2005."

Martin John, electoral services manager at Oxford City Council, where registrations rose by 14 per cent, said: "We have seen a late surge in people registering, applying for postal and proxy votes and re-registering. The surge started about two weeks before the deadline and continued right up to 20 April."

Chris Facey, electoral services officer for Sedgemoor District Council in Somerset, said: "There's been a definite increase since the debates started. We've registered 1,700 voters in the last two weeks – it's been phenomenal."

Numbers registering have increased by 6 per cent in Wells, Somerset, where the Tories are defending a 3,040 majority over the Liberal Democrats, and by 5 per cent in Somerton and Frome, where the Liberal Democrats' notional majority over the Tories is 595.

The constituencies of Poole and Mid Dorset and North Poole have experienced a combined increase of more than 9,000 compared with 2005.

Registration has been boosted by new legislation allowing people until the 11th day of the campaign to sign up. Previously, no one could add his or her name to the electoral roll once a general election had officially been called.

The Electoral Commission said more than 500,000 registration forms were downloaded from its website in the month before the deadline, 50,000 of those in the final 24 hours.

Forty per cent of visitors to its website were aged between 18 and 24 – a trend that will encourage the Liberal Democrats, who hope to poll strongly among students and young adults.

John Turner, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said: "From the information I have had, it appears to be the case that there has been a quite remarkable increase in registration."

He suggested the rise might be linked to the "increased interest" provoked by "probably the closest election within memory", but warned it might not necessarily lead to a higher turnout on the day.

Dame Margaret Eaton, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "Any sign of increases in the number of people registering to vote can only be good news for democracy.

"It is crucial people not only register to vote, but make sure they turn out on polling day so their voice is heard."

Election turnout has been steadily dropping since 1950 when 83.9 per cent of the adult population voted. It fell to just 59.4 per cent in 2001, slightly recovering to 61.4 per cent four years later. Political leaders will be hoping that two out of three electors will turn out this time.

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