Votes for all – getting students back on the electoral register

Paul Greatrix highlights a new Jisc project supporting institutions in developing a voter registration web application.
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Back in 2014 the Government introduced Individual Voter Registration which was intended to reduce the possibility of electoral fraud.

The change is explained in this House of Commons Library Report from 2016

Registration used to be done by household canvass; someone at each address filled in the annual canvass form on behalf of everyone living there who was eligible to vote. The new system requires everyone to register individually and to provide personal identifiers: date of birth and National Insurance number. The personal identifiers verify the elector’s identity and can be cross checked with the Department of Work and Pensions database or local authority held data.

For students resident in university halls this meant that it was no longer possible for their institutions to register them en bloc, rather every individual student had responsibility for registering themselves. Whilst most universities sought to encourage electoral registration at the point students enrolled at the start of session, this method was not necessarily as effective as the previous mass registration given that it required additional personal identification data which new students did not always have to hand. And even if they did there were also then legal Data Protection issues about collecting and transferring personal data securely to electoral registration officers. Although several universities have found an approach for mass data sharing with which they felt comfortable, the majority of institutions have not gone down this route because of data protection concerns.

The student vote

The consequences of the shift to individual registration have been significant in terms of student participation though, as the 2016 House of Commons report noted:

Local authorities with high concentration of students appear to have been more affected by IER as their registers decreased more significantly than the average. However, these authorities also recorded very high level of additions in the months preceding the May 2015 elections.

More recently, in an attempt to grow registrations NUS and Universities UK as well as individual universities all sought to encourage students to register to vote before the 2017 General Election. And then the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, in section 13(1)(f), created a new statutory requirement on higher education institutions 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

So, for the first time, and as a response to this deficit in electoral registration we have a regulator required to take steps to help with driving up student voter registration which is actually very much in line with the view taken by the Electoral Reform Society which is campaigning for a “registration revolution’:

We want to see the government working closely with electoral registration officers, charities, campaigners, regulators and others to ensure every last step is taken to maximise voter registration in the UK. And we need moves towards automatic voter registration, so that whenever you are in contact with government you can sign up.

Registration by application

In this context then I’m really excited by this new project being undertaken by Jisc which is intended to create a student electoral registration service for students to facilitate their involvement in the democratic process. The project is developing a shared service which will enable universities to support student electoral registration by offering a simple web app for students to register to vote.

I’m pleased to be involved in working with Jisc and other colleagues in getting it to this stage:

Developed in consultation with the Academic Registrars Council and the Association of Heads of University Administration, the service will automatically transfer data to the relevant, participating electoral registrars reducing the administrative burden of working with multiple electoral registrars across the UK.

The service will collect the data relevant needed for electoral registration. The service will collect this data from the student and, where possible, from the HE provider if they already have this data to provide a more seamless experience for students.

We will transfer this data securely using the UK Access Management Federation, which every HE provider uses today.

The new service, assuming all goes to plan, will provide a straightforward and secure method of not only achieving what the OfS is seeking but, more importantly, enabling every eligible student to get their name on the electoral register and ensuring they are able to participate fully in the democratic process.

All credit to colleagues at Jisc for agreeing to support this project. I think it will make a huge difference.

5 responses to “Votes for all – getting students back on the electoral register

  1. The University of Sheffield and University of Sheffield Students’ Union’s successful pilot on voter registration was instrumental in leading to the section in the HE and Research Act 2017, and the new OfS condition. The Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement’s recent report ‘The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century’ makes reference to this – https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldcitizen/118/118.pdf. Hopefully, the success we’ve seen in increasing student voter registration will be mirrored more widely.

  2. I think that these sneaky bureaucratic fixes to the question are unethical, the point should be to be able to make the case on campus and convince students that there is a reason to register, we build a much healthier politics if registration to take part in elections is something that citizens actively do for themselves.

  3. @H.E.Serfdom esq.: I am sure that we all agree that it would be preferable for all citizens to make a proactive choice to register and then take part in elections; and the swathe of registrations before the last election showed the power of universities and Students’ Unions in raising the profile and encouraging engagement. But the fact remains that some people will always miss the messages (and there were plenty of examples of voters not being registered in time, despite meeting the deadlines, in 2015). The “bureaucratic fix” – which is still about enabling, rather than undertaking registration on behalf of, students – only gets them onto the register. It doesn’t make them vote. Enabling and supporting engagement with the process is really valuable part of citizenship education. “First they came…”

  4. What measures are you taking to stop Electoral fraud eg Double ad Multiple voting? Are you making students aware that it is a criminal offence, comromises the Electoral system and they will receive a criminal record if any students continue to do this?

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