Out of Bounds: How the new electoral register excludes the poorest and worsens inequality

When you wake up tomorrow, two and a half million people will have disappeared. You’ll still pass them in the street, but they won’t be counted among us.  Politically, they’ll be silenced.  That’s because today a new electoral register comes into force which only includes those who have registered as individuals or who have been registered to vote at their current address since summer 2014 – and drops everyone else.

Against the advice of the Electoral Commission, the Government has fast-tracked the Individual Electoral Registration deadline by a whole year, so anyone not on the list today is unlikely to be able to vote in important polls scheduled for next May, including Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, London Mayoral and some local elections.

But there are even more worrying implications for inequality. When the Boundary Commission draws up new boundaries of MPs’ constituencies next year, it will be based on this new electoral register. As a new briefing paper from the Smith Institute argues, if millions of people are missing from the register, that means the basis for our electoral system is flawed, as it fails to reflect the true picture of our country.  The new distribution will see socially deprived areas, certain ethnic minorities and ‘Generation Rent’ under-represented; while more affluent areas with high numbers of registered voters will receive disproportionate representation.

It will exacerbate the existing problem that rich people wield disproportionate power over political decision-making at the expense of the rest of us. Not only does voter turnout tend to increase as income rises, but people at the top of the pile can afford to make influential financial donations to political parties to increase the chances of favourable policies. Political inequality is bound up with socio-economic inequalities, such that even in a democracy we end up with unequal outcomes.

This is not just a problem for citizens – it’s a problem for politicians too. It breaks down already worryingly low levels of public trust and threatens to add to the 63 per cent of poorer voters who feel democracy addresses their interests badly.

Our country is well behind the times in moving towards individual registration for voters, but it’s a mistake to hurtle towards it in the full knowledge that yet more people are getting left behind – and when so much rests on getting it right.

Lucy Shaddock, Policy and Campaigns Officer