Robert Hanks: It's insane - I've lost my right to vote

Within a few seconds, she established that my wife and I had both been erased due to 'clerical error'
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The Independent Online

When I was studying politics at university, I attended a series of lectures on psephology, the science of elections. A statistic that has stuck in my head all these years is that every year around 3 per cent of the electorate drops off the electoral register by virtue of having moved house, died, gone insane, been sent to prison, and/or been elevated to the peerage.

When I was studying politics at university, I attended a series of lectures on psephology, the science of elections. A statistic that has stuck in my head all these years is that every year around 3 per cent of the electorate drops off the electoral register by virtue of having moved house, died, gone insane, been sent to prison, and/or been elevated to the peerage.

Having successfully dodged ennoblement, incarceration and the rest, and not having moved house for several years, I naturally expected that come next Thursday I would be fulfilling my democratic duties at my local polling station. I was a little uneasy about the fact that my polling card hadn't turned up yet - apart from a brief, impersonal note soliciting support for George Galloway's Respect Alliance, we hadn't received any electoral material at all. But that I put down to the combined inefficiency of of Hackney Council and the Royal Mail.

My spider senses started tingling in earnest yesterday morning, when the postman finally delivered a big bundle of election leaflets, all addressed to our neighbours. I phoned Hackney's elections and registration officer: the number given in the latest phone book turned out to have been discontinued.

Fortunately I live in one of the 49 per cent of households in the UK able to access the internet from home and, having Googled my way to an alternative, working number, I was handed on to a friendly and efficient officer. Within a few seconds, she had established that my wife and I had both been erased from the electoral register due to "clerical error".

She couldn't explain how this error had happened - our registration form was in the files, correctly filled in - and she couldn't do anything about it: the cut-off date for correcting errors was last Thursday. We had lost our vote. I was, and I'm trying hard to be precise here, bloody furious.

Given the difficulty that the political classes have in getting people to vote at all, it seems bizarre that we could be deprived so casually of our chance to vote. Two questions occur: first, how much does this sort of thing happen? And what can be done to prevent it?

The answer to the first question turns out to be: nobody has a clue. The Electoral Commission, established by Parliament in 2000 to "increase public confidence in the democratic process within the United Kingdom - and encourage people to take part", says it is impossible to check because all records are held locally. As far as Hackney is concerned - well, the communications officer to whom my case was handed as soon as I mentioned that I am a journalist could tell me only that she hoped it was a one-off.

I conducted a swift telephone poll of my neighbours; the third person I called said that, yes, exactly the same thing had happened to her daughter at the last general election. This is hardly a statistically significant sample. But bear in mind that according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people registered to vote in UK parliamentary elections decreased by 245,300 (0.6 per cent) between December 2002 and December 2003. Doesn't it sound as if there might be cause for anxiety?

As for the second question, how to prevent it: the Electoral Commission has proposed that the current system of locally held electoral registers should be replaced by a national electronic register, which would be far more responsive to changes. One of their recommendations is that, so long as electors can show a local connection going back longer than three months, they should be able to register up to six days before the date of elections. If this rule had been in place, we would have got in under the wire.

But what seems perverse to me is that, when we haven't budged from the same address for a number of years, our names can be scrubbed so easily. Shouldn't there be some burden on electoral officers to check before removing somebody from the register, in the absence of evidence of death, madness, change of address?

Our story, by the way, has had a happy ending: I have now been told that, phew, it is possible to restore our names to the register by Thursday. But what happens to the voters who can't wave around the fact that they are journalists for a national paper? Or the ones who don't have internet access?

You may say that this doesn't matter - it is not as if our individual votes ever change anything anyway. But voting isn't simply about exercising your preferences: it's a chance to participate, to express your faith that democracy, however imperfect, is worth preserving. I can't think of many things more important than that.

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