We musn’t miss the boat on registering to vote

Rhys Wallis is Societies and Employability Officer at Exeter Students’ Guild

This year – although not necessarily this academic year – we will see a whole range of elections in the UK, from local council elections, police and crime commissioners, and even through to the General Election.

As always, universities and SUs, guilds and associations will now have to battle with the relative apathy of the 18-24 voter group, which make up the majority of memberships, whilst seeking to battle political impartiality with the OfS conditions of registration (notably E5, which promotes the facilitation of electoral registration).

This is often a tough task, with students consistently falling in the categories of UK citizens who don’t register as voters to the same extent as other parts of the country.

Not everyone’s boarded yet

From statistics given by the Electoral Commission, across Great Britain in 2022, 60 per cent of 18-19 year-olds were registered to vote, with 67 per cent of 20-24 year-olds following suit.

This makes up a majority of the university population – by quite some way – who are eligible to vote, and to have them 20 per cent below the average for UK and ROI citizens registered to vote in 2022 (at 87 per cent) paints a bad picture of the ability of students to use their vote.

This is compounded by the reality that students often live in houses or accommodation for under a year at a time, sat on short-term, 10-month (or so) contracts, with a 12-month contract being the standard upper limit before people move their house, to go live with new friends, or just because their needs change.

The Electoral Commission again add some colour to this painting, by telling us that individuals who have lived at their current address for up to one year are only registered to vote in 39 per cent of instances, which should be a significant warning light for those who are looking back at condition E5, or who just want to see their members able to exercise their civic rights in an election.

All of this means that the sector needs to be active in promoting students voting – Purpose Union already have some information on that one – but not all voter registration drives are created equal.

At Exeter, we’ve been pushing the university to adopt an auto-enrol scheme, with mixed responses, but it seems clear that this is the way forward, if we really want to encourage our student members to be active, enfranchised citizens in their local community, and have their voice heard outside the walls of our institutions.

The boat’s steaming away

With student voter registration as low as seen previously in this article, the push for greater registration efforts should be clear to justify – but once justification is done, there is the matter of how to do it, and then the turnaround time!

Life, and activities at students’ unions, seems to always find a way to interrupt best laid plans, and now it’s too late to register to new electors for the May – so how do we make sure those on the boat, feel empowered and able to vote, whilst being clear that there is a second boarding process coming very soon?

This is where I look to SUBU, and their hustings event for prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) in the city.

A prime example of bringing the political education to the voter base, the event speaks to a voter engagement effort, designed to bring students on the journey towards voter registration, and also then using their voting rights to make an informed choice.

It also allows for cross-community engagement; whilst efforts will by default be designed to be for students as students (thanks to the legal duties on most SUs), there is no reason to say why multiple SUs in the same city couldn’t join forces to create a larger-scale informative event, or voter drive.

Even cooperation with local community democracy groups isn’t off the table. The General Election is coming, and I am sure that plenty of fresh candidates will want to get their voices and messages heard in communities who might not be as engaged as others – the marginal gain could be very impressive – but they won’t if we’re not helping to facilitate the cross-party spaces, so that there are opportunities for reasoned, informed debate and discussion.

Two boats at once?

Students, of course, are in a novel position, with their ability to vote in two locations at local elections. This provides its own communication challenge, where students may be registered at “home” and feel that that’s enough – but are still missing out on the chance to be registered where they spend (most likely) more of their time, in their university residence ward.

Encouraging students who are registered to vote to do so again, can be challenging, but this is where your university partner can be of real help: course enrolment and university registration has almost all of the required pieces of information to accurately add individuals to the electoral roll!

Getting your institution to patch on a voter registration opt-in at the start or end of the university registration system will help smooth the process no end, for the students, and for the council (or whoever is in charge of adding individuals to the electoral roll in your area!).

This novel position comes to nought in the event of a General Election, however, and here is where another potential pitfall comes into play; on current estimations, a General Election is expected to be around the same time that students across the nation are heading back to their university residences, and may not be registered at their location preferred locations (if at all).

Establishing a get out the vote campaign (non-partisan, naturally) at any SU will be difficult around the welcome period, simply due to capacity challenges, and add to that a cohort of students who might well not have politics forefront in their brains at that time, and there could be a challenge looming.

Students registered in two locations will get the chance to choose which constituency they vote in, but if they’re only registered in one location, the risk of disenfranchisement by accident is a real and present danger.

As previously discussed in a number of publications, students may lose out in that space; even if you ascribe to the teachings of Sir John Curtice – as many do! – there is still the danger that students who are registered at home will not be able to make the necessary arrangements to vote by post or by proxy, consumed as they may be with the induction period for their degrees, or re-entering the student world, and will therefore potentially lose any voting chance at the next General Election.

At Exeter, we’re already working on our GE comms plan, just in case it comes at a bad time, so that we can be ready to go the moment an election is called: I hope it’s enough of a lead in time to get across all the messages we need to.

Can I board the Vote Boat?

There is only really one way to end this particular post, and it is with a clear call to register to vote! If you’re in SUs, or student representation, think about how you can help your members to register, so they can make their voices heard.

If you’re in universities, look at your partner institutions, and ask “how can we help?” – it’s much easier for institutions to make impact on the local community if local authority can be derived from the voter base that those institutions bring, so it really can be in your best interests! It also might be in your financial best interests as well; some councils pay universities for doing a bit of the legwork on voter registration!

If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible to vote, then make sure you check up! For international students in the UK, this handy website should be able to provide you with most of the details; for home students, the chances are the answer is a resounding yes, you just need to fill out the details required in the register to vote form.

This message is too late for the registration window for the local elections, but if you’ve missed the vote boat on that one, there’s still time to board before the ship of state sails off towards a General Election. We don’t know when it will be, but it’s going to be this year, so make sure you, and your students, don’t leave it too late – register to vote now.

Leave a Reply