However, despite the benefits seen to date, there is room for improvement, according to a new report released by the Electoral Commission. Siloed electoral registers and the lack of shared data has meant that manual processes are still required behind the scenes, creating laborious tasks for Electoral Registration Officers (EROs).
According to the Electoral Commission’s report, the government should look at new ways to notify citizens online if they have already registered to vote in their area, avoiding duplication, and should also consider how electoral registration could be incorporated into other public services.
Equally, the introduction of the Digital Economy Act into legislation should make it easier for public bodies to share data between each other, allowing for easier verification of whether or not a citizen has already registered.
Given the ease at which citizens can register to vote online, but the difficulty in which it takes to check if you are already registered (requires contacting your local authority electoral services team), many people submit their online registration forms again, to be on the safe side.
However, this leads to additional work for EROs, who then have no way of automatically checking whether or not a voter has previously registered. And the figures for duplicate registrations are not trivial. For example, in the June 2016 EU referendum, data showed that 38% of applications made during the campaign were duplicates.
Estimates from the most recent general election suggest that in some areas the duplication figures were as high as 70%.
The Electoral Commission report states:
The online registration system currently allows people to submit an application to register even if they are already registered to vote. There is no direct link between the online registration service and the electoral registers, which are each held separately on local databases using a range of different management software systems. This means that the different systems cannot currently communicate directly with each other and it is therefore not possible to automatically detect and prevent these duplicate applications.
EROs have again highlighted the significant administrative impact of processing duplicate applications ahead of the general election. Each individual application must be carefully checked to confirm whether or not they are a duplicate, although some electoral management systems used by EROs can help manage this workflow more efficiently.
The Electoral Commission has received feedback from electors that it would be far more helpful if it were possible for people to use the online registration system to check whether they were already correctly registered to vote before submitting a new application. Other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, already offer such a service.
The report adds:
We want to begin quickly to work with the UK Government to consider how existing systems could be improved to address the administrative impact and wasted effort by EROs and their teams which results from duplicate applications. We have previously recommended that an online ‘look up’ facility should be provided for electors to check whether they are already registered and we are keen to explore options for enhancing the existing online registration service.
It may be possible, for example, for the online service to notify applicants if they have recently submitted an online application before they complete a further application to tackle the cause of the problem at source.
We will also work with Electoral Management Software (EMS) suppliers, EROs and the UK Government to explore and identify ways to enable quicker duplicate detection and better processing to reduce the administrative burden on EROs and their staff, which should include exploration of the role improved communication between separate registers could play in this.
Joining up services
The Electoral Commission notes that whilst the introduction of online registration has transformed electoral registration over the last three years, it adds that the various governments of the UK now need to build on this success and continue to modernise the systems to make it even simpler and more accessible for voters and more efficient for EROs. It said:
We want to see early action to develop an ambitious agenda for further modernising electoral registration during the next five years.
The report notes how democracies around the world have considered responses to rapidly changing demographic and digital communication trends, moving towards more direct or automatic enrolment procedures. The Electoral Commission believes that the UK can learn from other countries about what works, implementing changes that can improve the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers.
In the UK, for example, some EROs have already worked with local higher education providers to integrate electoral registration applications into student enrolment processes.
Other countries, meanwhile, have implemented procedures to enable simultaneous voter registration application alongside accessing other public services. For instance, in the US legislation requires each US state to offer registration at public service agencies, such as motor vehicles departments. In Canada, citizens can apply to be registered when they submit their annual tax return.
The Electoral Commission wants to explore such opportunities with the government.
Equally, the report highlights how new legislation in the UK could be used to promote sharing of data between different public bodies, to ensure that registers are accurate and that data is reliable. The Electoral Commission notes:
Earlier this year the Digital Economy Act received Royal Assent following approval by the UK Parliament. The Act includes provisions which are intended to make it easier for public bodies to share data they hold in order to improve the delivery of public services to citizens.
We will explore further with the Cabinet Office Modernising Electoral Registration Programme what opportunities there are for using these provisions to improve the compilation and maintenance of electoral registers, in particular using appropriately reliable data so that EROs can better identify people who are not accurately registered.
We want to work with the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and EROs across the UK to improve opportunities for EROs’ access to data from other public service providers – particularly where that data is held by national rather than local providers – to enable them to target their activity at new electors or those who have recently moved.