Electoral Registration farce: don't let it stop you voting
The first time I was eligible to vote was on
March 1st 1979 – at the referendum on a Scottish Assembly. I’ve voted at
every election since.
This week – 36 years since I first voted – I
received a letter from someone called Helen D M McPhee. Apparently, Ms
McPhee is the Electoral Registration Officer for Ayrshire. In her letter,
she told me she was “unable to determine [my] application to be added to the
Ms McPhee further informed me that I must
provide her with “documentary evidence to prove [my] identity”, and that if I
failed to provide this before March 27th, it may result in her rejecting my
application for registration.
Along with thousands of others, I received a
letter last October, which informed me the UK Government was changing the way
people could be registered to vote. Instead of the ‘head of household’
completing a form with the names of everyone living at an address and who were
eligible to vote, the Westminster government now requires that everyone
There are valid reasons for this change, not
least the fact that, under the old system, it was possible to make-up a name
and submit it to be added to the Electoral Register, which would allow someone
to vote using the fictitious name. It was also possible for someone to be
on the Electoral Register at more than one address, and so have more than one
vote. Of course, using votes secured by these methods was illegal, but
detection was very difficult.
The new system of individual registration
requires some personal details to be submitted with an application, which is
designed to reduce electoral fraud.
According to the Electoral Commission – the
body that oversees registration for the Electoral Register – the new process
should be a simple matter. The organisation says that Electoral
Registration Officers (that’s Ms McPhee for Ayrshire) would use “national
databases” to cross-reference names already on the register. This, the
Electoral Commission stated, meant that only those whose identity could not be
confirmed by this method would have to make a new application to be added to
the Electoral Register.
Apparently I was one of thousands whose names
could not be verified by cross-referencing the existing Electoral Register with
‘national databases’ operated by the UK Department for Work and Pensions.
It was for this reason that I received the letter last October.
I was told that if I wanted to be added to the
new register, I must provide my date of birth and National Insurance number to
the Ayrshire Valuation Joint Board in Ayr. I did this immediately, on the
same day I received their letter.
I heard nothing for 5 months, until this week
when Ms McPhee got round to telling me she is “currently unable to determine”
I am on the existing Electoral Register, I am
registered with the local council for Council Tax purposes, I have provided my
date of birth and National Insurance number, but still Ms McPhee can’t decide
whether or not I should be allowed to vote. The letter I received this
week requires that I now submit to Ms McPhee a copy of my passport.
I’m not alone in this, though. One of my
friends, Alex Neil, received the same letter from Ms McPhee. Despite
having lived at the same address for over 30 years, and having voted in every
election held during that period, Alex was also told Ms McPhee could not
determine his application to be added to the new register. Like me, he
was instructed to prove his identity by submitting a copy of his
passport. Alex Neil is currently a Member of the Scottish Parliament and
the Scottish Government Minister for Social Justice, Communities and
Another SNP MSP, Rob Gibson, is also going
through the same process in the north of Scotland.
It turns out thousands of people – many of
them students – now find themselves with significant stumbling-blocks being
placed in the way of them exercising their democratic right to vote in
elections. Pensioners, too, are receiving these intimidating letters
telling them to prove their identity or, potentially, lose their vote.
What appeared to be a legitimate
‘tightening-up’ of the process involved in registering to vote has turned into
a farce. Another of my friends, Jim Sillars, former MP and Deputy Leader
of the SNP, this week described the situation as a “democratic emergency”,
adding, “If people are being rejected incorrectly, if people are not aware of
the system, then the Electoral Commission has to recognise it as a democratic
emergency, step in now and get this matter sorted out because the right to vote
is fundamental to a democracy. If an administration shambles prevents
someone from casting their vote then democracy is in serious trouble.”
Since the scale of the problem became known,
the Electoral Commission issued a statement, saying, “It is important to be
clear that no-one will come off the electoral register because of this change
before the May 7 UK Parliament election, even if they have yet to move to the
new electoral registers.”
So, that is okay, then. Apparently even
those of us who have been told to provide proof of our identity in order to be
added to the new register will not be denied our vote at the UK Election on May
7th. That is what the Electoral Commission says in its statement.
However, the letters bearing the name of Helen
D M McPhee, Electoral Registration Officer for Ayrshire – including the one I
received on March 10 – state that if I don’t provide her with a copy of my
passport “by no later than 27 March 2015”, it may result in her “rejecting” my
application for registration. Ms McPhee’s deadline gave me just 13
working days to respond despite her having held onto my application for 5
months before she decided she couldn’t make a decision.
Of course, the implied threat in Ms McPhee’s
letter is not that I will be prevented from voting on May 7th (should I fail to
comply with her instruction), but that I would be denied a vote at future
elections if she decides to exclude me from the new register. That
distinction is not immediately clear, though, and anecdotal evidence suggests
many people caught-up in this electoral registration farce believe they could
be denied the right to vote at the UK Election and are giving up, deciding it’s
easier to just forget about attempting to have their names added to the new
register. Effectively, therefore, many people are excluding themselves
from the democratic process.
This election is going to be extremely
significant in terms of Scotland’s future. Opinion pollsters and
bookmakers predict a massive surge in support for the SNP, with the party in
line to sweep Labour aside, securing a landslide victory and possibly holding
the balance of power in the UK Parliament. However, that will only happen
if Scots turn out to vote SNP on May 7th.
So, let’s be clear: despite the intimidating
and threatening letters being issued in the past week by Ayrshire’s Electoral
Registration Officer, Helen D M McPhee, her bosses at the Electoral Commission
have said that everyone who was eligible to vote at last September’s
Independence Referendum will be able to vote at the UK Election on May 7th.
That said, it is important we all check to see
if we are on the Electoral Register: copies are available at local libraries in
Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston. Make sure to ask the librarian to
confirm the register is the one that will be in force for the UK Election on
The Ayrshire Valuation Joint Board, which is
the body currently compiling the new register (and is where Helen D M McPhee
works), can be contacted on 01292 612221 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, there must be a full and
transparent investigation into the farce that has resulted from the UK
Government’s changes to voter registration and to why people who have been
eligible to vote for more than 30 years are being threatened with deletion from
the Electoral Register if they don’t jump through hoops and prove their