Five years ago the Government made individuals responsible for their own voter registration as a way to reduce electoral fraud. Students no longer have their details passed to Councils by their halls of residence, instead they are expected to register themselves.
Over the following two years, areas with high student populations noticed a decrease in the number of registrations, despite the efforts of student union and University campaigns to encourage them to engage with the process. There were also a number of concerns around data protection and the simple fact that Universities often weren’t gathering the data that Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) required, in particular National Insurance numbers.
In 2017 there was a lot of activity to try and reverse the fall in student electoral registrations. A Jisc project began to put together a service to help Universities gather data and pass it to EROs; a general election prompted more campaigns targeted at students; and the government introduced the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). This act required all higher education providers to:
take such steps as the OfS considers appropriate for facilitating cooperation between the provider and one or more electoral registration officers in England for the purpose of enabling the electoral registration of students who are on higher education courses provided by the provider
Over the last year the OfS has been busy adding higher education providers to their register, and all providers are expected to comply with condition E5 which reinforces the above requirement from the 2017 Act. This has effectively pushed much of the responsibility for registration on to providers, with the OfS able to apply sanctions and monetary penalties if they decide a provider has breached this condition.
Getting the data
Registering to vote requires only a small amount of information from an individual – their name, address, date of birth and national insurance number. Much of this is routinely gathered at enrolment, so some universities have amended their enrolment process to include the remaining data fields and ask for consent to pass this to the ERO. The University of Sheffield were an early adopter of this method, with other providers emulating them. This set of data can then be passed to the relevant ERO (some providers need to work with more than one if they have campuses in different areas), but enrolment is usually only once a year and not all providers have processes in place to help students outside this period.
For students enrolling outside the standard start dates this can cause delays in their data being passed on – a student enrolling in February might not have their data passed to an ERO until November. The timescales get problematic when an election is looming, students may not realise they are not registered until it’s too late to do it themselves online. Registration closes about two weeks before the election to allow for the printing and posting of voting cards, so if an election had been called on 15th October this year there would not have been much time for students to register.
The Jisc project – completed in March 2019 – offers providers a way to collect data from students through an app, aggregate it on a monthly basis and pass it to the relevant EROs. Some Universities have elected to use this service; others have developed their own solutions by adjusting their enrolment systems or student portals. Either way there has been a cost to the sector to develop these services, though some providers have been able to negotiate with their local councils to split the costs between them.
Where EROs have been enthusiastic about collaborating with providers, progress has been made to smooth out the process – Manchester City Council works closely with a number of local providers to register students irrespective of where the student is based within the UK. They also work with the providers to send out targeted mail to potential voters to catch any that may not have been picked up during enrolment.
Registration is just the start
Political literacy and knowledge of how elections work is important if we want students to engage with the process, but it is not an easy subject to tackle, especially in those first exciting months of attending higher education. The University of East Anglia was highlighted by the OfS for their work on building democratic knowledge through workshops and events. Examples included running an evening husting to help students engage directly with their local candidates in the run up to the 2017 elections. The OfS acknowledged that this is above and beyond the requirements of registration, and its not yet clear how many providers will take on this additional work. Responsibility for voter engagement still lies with the individual, but I will be interested to see if any providers find innovative ways to increase participation in elections.
Recent political events have prompted a surge in voter registrations, 50.2k applications for those aged under 35 came in on the 4th September, the average is about 27k per day. We do not know how many of these registrations are for students about to begin their studies, so this may reduce the numbers registering through their enrolment processes over the next few weeks.
Even if they have already registered, students many need to be made aware that they can register for local elections with their term time address, though they can only vote in general elections in one location. The choice they make on where to vote could potentially swing the outcome in some areas. Momentum have already realised this, and launched an online tool to target students at Brunel University London that helps them identify where their vote will have the biggest impact – something that the My Nearest Marginal website started in the 2017 general election.
Registering voters is important, as is educating them on how our systems work and ensuring they have enough political literacy to make informed choices. New tools and methods for connecting with potential voters can make a difference to voter engagement, but providers should ensure they are working together with EROs, and each other, to keep the process fair and open.