Leading Article: Better way to find missing voters

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JACK STRAW, Labour's local government spokesman, cites

the number of unregistered voters as 2 million, double the 1979 figure. He also pointed out yesterday that under-registration is alarmingly common among ethnic minorities, young people and those who live in private rented accommodation. But it is tempting to be cynical. Many names missed off the local electoral rolls across the country are those of people who avoided registration to escape the poll tax - and Labour has a vested interest, since it may well have lost 9 or 10 seats in the last election because so many of its potential supporters excluded themselves from the rolls. Why, one might ask, should taxpayers' money be spent to bring them back into the fold?

The reason is straightforward. The vested interests are on both sides: in 1990, the Conservative government enfranchised a large number of highly paid long-term expatriates in the clear hope of winning their votes. But Britain's political system loses legitimacy if a substantial number of voters of whatever background are effectively excluded from it - and the worry is stronger still when those excluded are poor and transient.

There is therefore a strong case for doing something to reverse the rising tide of unregistered voters. But the solution need not lie in Mr Straw's proposed national registration campaign, costing many times more than the pounds 650,000 spent by the Home Office each year on advertising the need to register. Two other steps would solve the problem more cheaply.

The first is to abolish the system, in place since 1948, that allows voters to register during a period of only a few weeks each autumn so that an official annual register can be prepared in the spring. Britain should move to a computerised 'rolling registration' system, and should defray the costs of doing so by changing the law to allow registration officers to charge more for electoral rolls sold to credit agencies and junk mail firms.

The traditional door-to-door search for new voters also needs to be updated. When people move into a new home, they usually open an account with a gas, water or telephone company, or receive a rent book. If landlords, utilities and the Land Registry were to send the details of newly arrived electors to the registration officers, the disenfranchised would win back their votes. And if individuals were given a right to order them not to do so, the threat to personal privacy would be minimised.