Saturday, 14 March 2015

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 Electoral Register”.

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 register individually.

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” my application.

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 Pensioners’ Rights.

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 May 7th.

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 ero@ayrshire-vjb.gov.uk

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 identity.


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