How people elect parliaments
Britain’s electoral register may have expanded by over 10% in just a few months, according to final registration figures released this week.
According to the UK Electoral Commission, 45.7 million people were registered for parliamentary voting in December 2016.
But a further 4.9 million applications have been received in the 24 weeks since 1 December.
At the last elections in 2015, registration stood at around 46.2 million.
The United Kingdom substantially modernized its electoral registration system in 2013. Registration was formerly a household task, but it has recently been made an individual responsibility.
To help voters, a new and simple system for online registration has been created.
www.gov.uk/register-to-vote: Registrations for the coming June 8 election have now closed, but eligible UK people can still register now for future electoral events.
The new registration system would first have applied in the lead-up to the 2015 national elections, but its impact by that point would then have been modest.
Local government elections across Britain in May 2016 and May 2017, and the Brexit referendum in June 2016, would also have generated surges in registration update applications.
Another major impact will have come from the deliberate canvas of households, conducted by officials in hundreds of local areas in the second half of 2016.
According to the UK Electoral Commission, by the time the late 2016 canvas was completed, 45,766,429 people were registered for parliamentary voting as of December 2016.
The registration system then trundled along at around 14,000 applications a day from 1 December to 18 April 2017. Throughout the early months of 2017 neither the Commission not the British people anticipated an early election.
But the day that Prime Minister Theresa May announced the election – 18 April – 150,000 applications were suddenly received.
The British public were informed that they had until May 22 to get on the register to be able to vote at the June 8 elections. Many political organisations, electoral lobby groups such as the Electoral Reform Society, political parties and celebrities have been running campaigns to encourage people – especially younger people – to get registered to vote.
Following the announcement of the election, registration applications ran at around 51,000 a day until the final week they were open, when they accelerated to 119,000 a day.
Then on the final day for registrations – May 22 – a massive 622,000 people applied for electoral registration.
Progressive campaigners and commentators are taking heart that an estimated 39% of the applications on that final day of applications were from people aged 25 and younger.
Britain has a very stark age difference in voter profiles, with older people voting heavily for the Conservative party, and younger people for the left and centre parties.
British voters under 50 significantly favour Labour, while those over 50 massively favour the Conservatives (image: YouGov.com)
However such hopes should be tempered. It should hardly be surprising that disproportionate numbers of new registrants are younger. Older people are already registered. The age profile of registration applications is naturally skewed towards younger cohorts compared to the full population profile.
Younger voters also normally turn out to vote at much lower rates than older voters.
There is no equivalent past data to contrast the data from the new registration system against, so its impossible to tell whether the recent applications are a really an anomalous surge of younger, more progressive voters.
In any case, not all applications may actually be new voters. The Commission data is simply the total number of online applications. Many may be updates of details such as names and residential addresses, and young people are generally more mobile than older people.
A few small categories of people can be registered for voting at local elections, but can’t vote in parliamentary elections. Some applications could even go nowhere if they turn out to be from non-eligible persons.
Registration is handled at local level, but the Electoral Commission will presumably be able to release details of the national registration totals in advance of June 8.
In any case, the data being released at least suggests that the new registration system, and the efforts of electoral officials, are helping bring many more people into participation in British elections.
In recent elections the electoral registration statistics have grown only slowly. In the ten years from 2005 (44.2 million registrants) to 2015 (46.2 million) they grew just 4.5%, equivalent to an annual growth rate below 0.5%.
Actual election turnout of registered voters has risen slowly in the past few elections, from a historical nadir of just 59% in the general election of 2001 to 61% in 2005, 65% in 2010 and 66% in 2015.
If registrations have indeed surged by millions of new voters in the past few months, it implies a significant increase in voter participation on June 8 compared to past elections.
If turnout also increases compared to recent past elections, the 2017 election could be headed for a bumper result.
But as for what political outcome that portends, we will need to wait two more weeks to find out.