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Expert Comment: V for Vote - National Voter Registration Day

ballot box Wednesday 4 February 2015

With National Voter Registration Day on February 5th, Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Michael Holmes traces the history of the UK electorate and argues that to make a difference, we should do even more than visit the ballot box.

February 5th is National Voter Registration Day. This will mark the start of a week of special activities across the UK to encourage as many people as possible to register themselves to vote. It is particularly aimed at young people, and the NUS is running a campaign that aims to encourage anything up to a quarter of a million students to register to vote in time for the general election on Thursday 7 May.

Previously, heads of household filled in the registration form for all – and in some cases, particularly in apartment blocks or student flats or areas with extensive shared accommodation, that meant that large numbers could be missed off the register, or polling cards could go astray and be misused. A new independent Electoral Commission was established in the UK in 2001, and one of their suggestions was for a new registration system, in order to ensure a more complete electoral register and to deter electoral fraud. This led to the new Individual Electoral Registration system being introduced last year. The new system means that while the existing electoral rolls have been carried over, every new voter must personally register to be able to vote.

This is particularly important in relation to students and their participation in the election, so the NUS and a non-party campaign called Bite The Ballot have been very active in trying to encourage young people to register – you can register to vote as soon as you are 16, even though you cannot actually vote until you reach 18. This could increase the student voice in the election and in the subsequent parliament.

The right to vote is of course a key part of democracy. But it is one that emerged only slowly in the UK. At the start of the 19th century, less than 3% of the country’s population were eligible to vote. And when protests against this exclusion grew, they were met with violence and repression – the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 occurred when mounted yeomanry armed with sabres attacked a crowd calling for political reform, killing at least eleven.

A series of acts through that century brought minimal change. The First Reform Act of 1832 saw the right to vote extended to include a greater number of male property owners – but still, something around 85% of people had no right to vote. The Second Reform Act of 1867 went further, but only 40% of males were enfranchised. The Third Reform Act of 1884 gave all male house owners the right to vote, but that still meant considerable numbers were excluded – and of course, no women.

So it was not until the 20th century that the UK finally became more democratic. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave all males aged 21 and over and all women aged 30 and over the right to vote, without any property requirements; the Representation of the People Act 1928 brought women’s voting age into line with that of men; and the last major reform was the Representation of the People Act 1969, which brought the age of voting down to 18.

However, the right to vote does not in itself guarantee a thriving democracy. There is a major problem today of declining turnout in elections. Turnout in UK general elections was over 80% in the early 1950s, but in the 2001 election it had sunk below 60%. Even though subsequent elections have seen the figure creep back over the 60% mark, there is a clear problem of voter disengagement. The figures for local and European elections and for votes such as those for police commissioners have seen even worse turnout figures.

Some argue that this could be addressed by lowering the voting age to 16 – but this on its own would probably only increase the numbers who wouldn’t bother to vote. Others have suggested making voting compulsory, as happens in Belgium and Australia, for example. But a more fundamental point might be that people will vote when they feel their vote matters, that there is a genuine choice to be made, and that there are real alternatives on offer. For instance, the Scottish independence referendum last year seemed to really engage citizens there, and it produced a turnout of almost 85%.

Overall, it suggests that the right to vote is a crucial part of the democratic process – but not the only part. So if you are not already registered to vote, then make sure you do so – and when election day comes, go out and actually use that vote. But don’t stop there. Follow that up by getting engaged with politics – follow the political news, attend meetings, join a party or an interest group, join a demonstration or a march or sign a petition – in short, get active and be involved!


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