Register – or else!

According to the papers over the weekend, some parts of our increasingly pathetic government are considering the idea making registering to vote compulsory with punishment for those drones individuals who fail to comply.

The MP with his grubby fingers on this illiberal idea is one Mark Harper, Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Cabinet Office, reporting to Nick Clegg, and having responsibility for Political and Constitutional Reform.

In September 2010 he informed the House of Commons that he was planning on scrapping the current system of registering to vote by household in favour of individual registration:

At present, there is no requirement for people to provide any evidence of their identity to register to vote, which leaves the system vulnerable to fraud. Household registration harks back to a time when registration was the responsibility of the head of the household. Access to a right as fundamental as voting should not be dependent on someone else. We need a better system of keeping up with people who move house or who need to update their registration for other reasons. Individual registration provides an opportunity to move forward to a system centred around the individual citizen.

That the current system has, in recent years, been widely abused by some is – if not backed up by convictions – backed via anecdotal evidence and there is logic to the idea of requiring people to do so on an individual basis instead.

Harper gave the following time table:

Individual registration will be made compulsory in 2014, but that no one will be removed from the electoral register who fails to register individually until after the 2015 general election, giving people at least 12 months to comply with the new requirements, and ensuring as complete a register as possible for the election. From 2014 onwards any new registrations will need to be carried out under the new system, including last-minute registrations. We will also make individual registration a requirement for anyone wishing to cast a postal or proxy vote.

Again, I can’t disagree with the desire to do prevent the fraudulent use of postal voting – a practice which is acknowledged to have increased sharply since the previous government relaxed the rules in 2001.

However the changes were subject to criticism by opposition MPs that thousands (or possibly millions) of people would be left off of the register and this is probably true. It seems to me that those who are likely to vote will ensure they are on the register and those who have no intention of bothering (either though general apathy or not seeing the point given how indistinguishable the main parties are these days) won’t.

In what might appear to be an attempt to respond to these critics, Harper has apparently sent a letter to the cabinet, part of which read:

I propose that we should introduce a civil penalty for individuals who fail to make an application to register when required to do so.

And this is where Harper and I part company. Yes, in the democracy (such as is left) in which we live, everyone* has the right to vote. The flip side of this is, of course, that we have the right not to bother. That can take the form of abstaining, spoiling the ballot paper or simply not even registering in the first place. Yes, the politicians will ignore you but as they tend to ignore everyone anyway once they have secured another term of office, I struggle to see the difference.

What Harper proposes is nothing more than a tax on those who choose the latter path; a stick to use against reluctant members of the population who have chosen to opt out of the system. It is an ill-conceived, illiberal idea and it therefore comes as no surprise to learn that the leader of the so-called ‘Liberal’ Democrats is believed to approve of this plan:

The Liberal Democrat leader is understood to have been convinced that some form of sanction will be necessary to force potential voters to register.

Hopefully this idea will be buried (along with all of the rest of the bad ideas that have come out recently) else I fear the next step could be compulsory voting – another awful idea which would be only slightly palatable if a ‘None of the Above’ option were to be included on the ballot paper with the proviso that if this option picked up the most votes, the election would be re-run with a completely new set of candidates!

* Yes, I know there are exceptions to this but the general principle is correct.

3 Comments

  1. JuliaM says:

    “…else I fear the next step could be compulsory voting…”

    As already exists in Australia.

    • Angry Exile says:

      Yep, and it is, to use Malcolm Tucker’s immortal phrase, as much use as a marzipan dildo. People who choose not to vote in the UK are either apathetic or have considered things and decided that nobody represents their views so nobody will get their vote. Here in Oz the latter will rock up to the polling station and either leave the paper blank or scrawl their choice of abuse, poetry or abusive poetry at politicians across it, or occasionally refuse on principle and pay the fine for not voting or, even more occasionally, go to jail for refusing to pay the fine. The former group simply ‘donkey vote’, i.e. just number the candidates in the order they appear on the paper in front of them (full preference voting – something else which buggers things up as you simply cannot avoid voting for the Big Two) without caring, or quite possibly even knowing, who stands for what. The politicians can pontificate about how inclusive Australia is and how everyone takes part in our democracy, but the elephant in the room is that probably almost as large a proportion of people here feel disenfranchised or disillusioned as in the UK. As a Brit abroad living where voting is a duty rather than a right (yeah, like we’d describe having to pay taxes as a right?) I’d say that when the political class knows that everyone has to vote they make even less effort to be worth voting for.

      • Misanthrope Girl says:

        It was Australia I was thinking of when I wrote that remark and I was aware of some of what AE has outlined about their voting system which was why I want to see a NOTA option on the paper so as to allow the voter to be able to send a message.

        If voting became compulsory and such an option didn’t exist, I’m unsure as to whether I’d spoil my ballot paper or take the fine.