Communications glitches mar voter registration changes
Transition to the new voter registration system launched in June is being hampered by lack of co-ordination in communications by central and local government bodies.
Known as Individual Voter Registration, or IER, the new system replaces the longstanding arrangement whereby the head of the household was responsible for registering those living at the same address. The old system, managed by local authority electoral registration officers (EROs), had been widely criticised as being old-fashioned, susceptible to fraud, and likely to keep those renting, or otherwise changing their accommodation regularly, off the register.
Under IER, registering to vote has become the responsibility of the individual, who can use a new online system developed by the Government Digital Service to do it.
The online process, one of the first of the 25 ‘exemplar transactions’ developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS), has been widely praised for being quick and easy.
The slickness of the GOV.UK process is not being matched on the communications side of things, however. The problem is being exacerbated by the number of players involved, including GDS and the Cabinet Office, the Electoral Commission, and the 350+ local authorities in England and Wales that run elections (arrangements in Scotland won’t change until later this year).
'Digital by default’ is proving to be just as susceptible to local implementation "issues" as any policy handed off by Whitehall to local authorities.
Under the new system, those of voting age can simply go to GOV.UK and register themselves, inputting their national insurance number and date of birth alongside their name.
Not all those on the existing electoral register will be carried across to the new one by local authority EROs, who will continue to manage electoral registers. In order to transfer them, EROs will be checking names and addresses on their existing registers against names on the DWP’s database of national insurance numbers.
While piloting of the process last year suggested that nearly 80% of names and addresses will match, the rest will need to be followed up with checking on local databases, including the council tax register. Where this checking does not produce a result, local authorities will be required to follow up with households, including making personal visits.
Given the self-service nature of the new voter registration arrangements there is a pressing need to inform the electorate The whole thing is to be communicated to the electorate via letters to be sent by local authorities to everyone on the existing electoral register. The letters will either confirm that the recipient has been successfully transferred to the new register and that they need to do nothing, or it will indicate that there is a problem and ask the individual to get in touch so it can be resolved.
The Electoral Commission campaign shows a citizen picking a letter up from the doormat and uses the strapline “Your vote matters. Make sure you’re in”. The Commission is spending an initial £2.7m on TV, outdoor, and online advertising between 3 July and 10 August, and strongly recommended local authorities that these letters be sent out in July.
However a trawl of local authority websites suggests that many of the letters going out will not do so within this time frame, with plans to send out letters in August, or in some cases, Dover District Council being one example, in September.
Meanwhile, despite the new online registration process exemplifying the government’s ‘digital by default’ aspirations, the core communications campaign is mostly using traditional media. And among the extensive advice, guidance, tested templates and information on envelope design provided by the Electoral Commission to local authorities, there is no recommended text for websites and no guidance about using social media to raise awareness.
Where voters hear about the changes, search on Google (perhaps because they have received no letter yet), and arrive directly at the GOV.UK voter registration page, there is no contextual information given about changes to the voter registration process and no links to obvious questions like ‘do I need to register again if I am already registered to vote?’ While this information is available on GOV.UK, it appears on a separate page called ‘Your Vote Matters’ which is not linked from the registration form.
With no template guidance about web communications forthcoming from the Electoral Commission, presentation of the changes on local authority websites is varied, and does not always answer key questions in particular ‘Does it matter if I apply for registration but am already registered?’
Liaison about the changes to voting registration between the Cabinet Office and local authorities appears to have been conducted exclusively with electoral registration officers and not to have involved local authority web or communications teams. The Local Digital campaign, a Department of Communities and Local Government initiative designed to support delivery of ‘seamless services’ to users across local and central government does not mention the transitition to IER in its programme
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.
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