GE2015: Want to drive up voter registration? Make it social

Temi Ogunye, Policy Researcher

This blog is part of a series about voter engagement and the 2015 General Election.

It’s exactly four weeks until the deadline for voter registration. If you are not registered to vote by Monday 20 April, then you will lose your right to vote in the general election on Thursday 7 May.

Non-voters could change everything

Election days are when citizens have real political power: we get to decide who represents us in parliament for the next five years. But too many of us fail to use this power. At the last general election in 2010, only 65% of those who were registered turned out to vote. This figure was even worse for 18-24 year olds (44%), black, Asian & ethic minority groups (51%), private and social renters (55%), and those in the lowest social classes (57%).

Turnout stats don’t take into account those people who were not even registered at the time of the last election. When you add up those who didn’t vote, it significantly outnumbers those who voted for any party. If the non-voters all turned up at the polls, they could quite literally change everything.

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Source: mirror.co.uk

No vote. No voice. No power

But before you can vote you need to be registered, and the process for registration has changed since the last election to something called Individual Electoral Registration (IER). Instead of the ‘head of the household’ being responsible for registering everyone in a property, each person is now responsible for registering themselves. This could mean that even more people are not registered to vote this time round, and more people who lack a voice come election day. These people will be powerless when it comes to affecting the election result. No vote. No voice. No power.

Many of those most likely to be not to be registered are overrepresented amongst Citizens Advice clients. This is why we are working to drive up voter registration and democratic engagement before the upcoming general election and beyond. Over the coming weeks, Citizens Advice Bureaux across England and Wales will be engaging in activities designed to ensure that all of our clients know that there is an election coming, that it is important that they make their voice heard, and that they need to be registered before they can.

The ‘I’ in IER

But when thinking about how to encourage people to register and vote, we must reflect on why they might not do so at the moment. There are many reasons offered for why this might be the case, from low levels of trust in politicians to a lack of political knowledge and education. But what if the levels of registration, turnout and engagement are influenced by the system itself?

Take IER. It has been said that many more people may fall off the electoral register because they don’t know about the change to the new system. But what if part of the problem with the new system is that it doesn’t do enough to recognise and emphasise the social nature of politics and voting? Perhaps Individual Electoral Registration focuses just a bit too much on the individual?

The reasons for the act of voting itself being kept secret are clear: because an open, public ballot is likely to result in some people being subject to undue pressure and influence. And the reasoning behind the move to IER seems sound too: the old system was indeed old-fashioned and out of date. The problem is that the way we now think of registration and voting – as essentially private acts engaged in by isolated individuals – doesn’t do justice to the essentially public, social nature of politics and democracy. We need to introduce some more social elements to our democracy to counterbalance our inherently (perhaps unavoidably) individualised system.

Make it social

Democratic social activities have been around for years – hustings and party meetings are two examples. The problem is that many of the groups who aren’t registered – especially the young – just don’t attend these kinds of events. In many ways we are living in the most connected and social of times, but it often feels as though our politics is slow to keep up. Fantastic websites like meetyournextmp.com are using digital technology to ensure that people are better informed about ‘Political’ (note the big ‘P’) events taking place.

But this cannot be just about encouraging people to go to the same old ‘Political’ events. We must also bring politics to the people and encourage political engagement it to be thought of as a social activity. This is the thinking behind the National Union of Students new #RegAFriend campaign, in which students are encouraged to find a friend who isn’t registered to vote and get them to do so.

The motivation to make politics social is also behind Bite the Ballot’s DeCafe project. This will see Starbucks across the country opening up to the public and offering free coffee to people who come in to use Bite the Ballot’s new Voter Advice App and discuss politics and democracy with others. This tool aims to help potential voters compare their views and values with the political parties on a variety of issues, and encourage them to discuss, register and turnout. There’s no reason this app and other engagement tools can’t be used at events taking place in other locations, such as libraries or youth clubs, for example. The point is that the venues must be the kinds of open, public places that those most likely not to be registered might visit. More spaces like this should think about opening up and holding similar events in the run up to the general election.

Time is running out to register to vote. Those who aren’t registered by 20 April will lose their political power come election day. Making politics and democracy less individual and more social provides an important opportunity to change this. If each of us doesn’t just register but contributes to this public conversation, we could help people who might otherwise be non-voters make their voices heard.

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One comment

  1. exrugbyman

    People have become disillusioned with politicians because of their constant bickering and their belief that they are right, and never wrong.
    They can change this by offering an annual referendum on the big topic of the year.
    Last year it would have been Scottish devolution.
    This year it could be EU membership.
    Next year it could be Capital Punishment, renationalisation of the NHS, membership of the Euro, war with Libya, war with Syria, war with Gaza, war with Russia, war with Afghanistan, etc., etc., etc..

    An annual referendum would give the people representation every year on major issues and not just every 5 years as we get now.

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