Comms has a key role in getting voter registration system right before next election

The new system of Individual Electoral Registration needs to be simplified and clarified before any impending general election.

The electoral system isn't working, says Polly Cziok
The electoral system isn't working, says Polly Cziok

Writing this column in the days after the seismic Brexit vote, it seems the only political certainty is that we will have another general election much sooner than expected. 

While Westminster politicians jostle for position, election managers and returning officers in town halls across the UK will be preparing once more to gear up the bureaucratic machine that underpins our democracy.

In London we’ve just had two major elections; the London Mayoral elections in May, and then the EU referendum the following month. Organising elections is a serious logistical challenge, especially in densely populated urban areas and remote rural ones, and occupies a great deal of resource at a local level.

There are months of planning, hundreds of polling stations to run, and additional staff to find, not to mention the curveballs thrown by unexpected events like extreme weather on polling day. Of course, there are always comms challenges that accompany the practical ones. Campaigns to encourage voter registration, and then voter turnout, are bread and butter work for councils, and we strive to find innovative and creative new ways to engage people with democracy.

However, the new system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) has intensified the comms challenge. IER is a good idea. It cuts the risk of electoral fraud, as well as identity theft. It’s just that the process is far more complicated than the one it has replaced, and it has proved difficult to communicate clearly.

Whereas once, a householder could register everyone in the house on one form, with no identity checks, now everybody must register his or herself as an individual, and that application must be data-matched or verified before it can be accepted.  The IER ‘customer journey’ that starts online on a central Cabinet Office-run system, then goes through to individual local councils, has many pitfalls along its way. This has led to real confusion among electors about whether or not they are registered, and thousands of duplicate registrations.

There is a greater risk where there is a high population churn and a high proportion of private renters, who may not automatically ‘match’ against council tax or other records, and may need to provide additional ID to make it on to the register. Digital should save the taxpayer money, not cost more, and it should be easier for the customer to access, rather than more complex.

Any new system will have teething troubles, but we need to get this right, in central and local government, and in time for the next election. There are improvements that must be made to the Cabinet Office online journey. At our end, we need to redouble our efforts to communicate, with clarity, how the new system works. It’s technical stuff. We’re communicating processes rather than ideas. In the context of the EU referendum result, it may sound like a parochial concern. But it is very important.

In a democracy, there is no more fundamental right than the right to vote, and we must work to ensure that by the time the next election is called, every citizen can exercise that right with ease.

Polly Cziok is head of comms at Hackney Council

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