If voter registration is the hidden wiring of the British constitution then we should be prepared for a power failure this year. Individual voter registration - where each person is responsible for signing themselves up to vote - may have been a good idea in principle, but the way that it has been introduced has been the worst of all worlds. And now an estimated 800,000 people have been lost from the electoral register.
This change should have provided the opportunity to move away from 19th century concepts of property ownership and patriarchal heads of households and see the introduction of a data driven form of voter registration more suited to the increasingly mobile lifestyles of many UK residents. Instead we have relied on 400 cash-strapped councils to introduce the biggest change to our registration system.
In a bizarre process, all households this year were still sent form for nominated ‘heads of households’ to complete - and then everyone listed was sent an individual form to complete to verify the details originally provided. The only beneficiaries of this bizarre paper chase have been suppliers of official stationery and the Royal Mail.
Added to this labyrinth is the need to provide fresh details and evidence of eligibility to vote every time a person moves house. It's as if you had to apply for a National Insurance number and eligibility to work every single time a person changed jobs.
Needless to say, the cumbersome way that the new registration system has been introduced has hit some areas, and certain groups of people, hard. Liverpool has seen a drop in its eligible register of 14,000, Birmingham 17,000 and Lewisham 6,000 - and these are all cities which have seen an increase in population over the same period. It has been estimated that pensioner couples who are owner occupiers living in shire counties have a 90 per cent chance of remaining on the electoral register. Compare this to a young black or ethnic minority men in private rented accommodation in the inner city: they have a less than 10 per cent chance of being registered under the new system.
The Electoral Commission knew that individual registration would take some time to bed in and asked that those on the existing registers in December 2015 should be given another year to provide proof of residence. The newly-elected Conservative Government refused - and upwards of a million voters faced the prospect of being removed from the register at a stroke.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if this was connected with the forthcoming review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. The fact that it has produced different levels of registration in different parts of the country has huge implications for this review. London - with a growing population - faces losing more than 15 parliamentary constituencies. The link between registration and eligible population, that has existed for nearly 100 years, will be broken.
The tragedy is that this sorry episode could have been avoided. Australia has had individual voter registration in place for decades. The state of Victoria, with a population of 3.5 million people, has a 95 per cent accuracy in its registration process and employs just five staff to achieve that. It uses highly accurate databases to track its population, and even removes the recently deceased from the register. Sadly, no representatives of the British Government or Electoral Commission bothered to discuss this process before rushing in on with its own botched version.
The final irony is the impact of our process of justice. Juries are drawn from those on the electoral register and the disappearance of a huge number of 18-24 year olds means that justice for many will be diminished.
Without any serious public debate we seem to have moved to a permissive form of voter registration more akin to Southern states of USA. Is that the best we can do in 21st century Britain?
Paul Wheeler is founder of the Political Skills ForumReuse content