May 5, 2010
Voter Registration Surge Adds to UK Election Unpredictability
A new law in the UK has made a late surge in voter registration possible and at the same time made the task of prognosticators and pollsters trying to predict likely election results much more difficult. This new law set the deadline for voter registration the eleventh day of the campaign. Previously on one could add his or her name to the electoral roll once a general election had officially been called by the Prime Ministers.
This has led to an enormous increase in voter registration across the United Kingdom. Pre-election polling shows the three parties locked in a tight race with no party favored to gain a governing majority. A large pool of new voters can only increase the unpredictability as UK voters go to the polls to choose a new Prime Minister. After 13 years of Labor Party rule it seems likely that change is in the air. It is uncertain what form this change will take.
According to The Independent (UK) the numbers are amazing. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/remarkable-rise–in-number-of-people-registering-to-vote-1958670.html
Amid signs that the country is heading for the closest result in a generation, a survey by The Independent has discovered the vast majority of councils experienced significant rises in voter registration in the run-up to last week’s deadline.
From the south coast of England to central Scotland, local authorities are reporting increases of up to 17 per cent in registration.
The trend is consistent across major cities, suburban constituencies and rural seats; and is pronounced in areas with crucial marginal seats. Returning officers attributed the “remarkable” increase to the interest generated by the three televised leaders’ debate and the three-horse nature of the contest.
The survey results of local councils across the UK show a consistent pattern of heightened voter interest.
The London Borough of Islington said 135,769 people had registered to vote on 6 May, compared with 116,176 at the time of the last election in 2005, a rise of 17 per cent. In neighbouring Hackney, registrations have gone up 15 per cent.
The number of voters on the electoral roll has increased by 8 per cent in Leeds, equivalent to an extra 18,000 voters. It also went up by 6 per cent in Newcastle and by 4 per cent in both Sheffield and Manchester.
A call centre set up by the Manchester City Council Council received more than 1,000 calls a day after the first leaders’ debate on 15 April. The authority reported an “unprecedented” 7,000 people registering to vote during this month.
Officials in Leicester reported a late rush with 1,800 voters signing up in the week before the 20 April deadline. The council’s electoral services manager, Alison Scott, said the “phones hardly stopped ringing”.
She said: “We anticipated a surge in enquiries, so made sure we had enough staff to answer the helpline number. But we weren’t expecting to be handling 400 calls a day – we certainly didn’t see a late surge like this in 2005.”
Martin John, electoral services manager at Oxford City Council, where registrations rose by 14 per cent, said: “We have seen a late surge in people registering, applying for postal and proxy votes and re-registering. The surge started about two weeks before the deadline and continued right up to 20 April.”
Chris Facey, electoral services officer for Sedgemoor District Council in Somerset, said: “There’s been a definite increase since the debates started. We’ve registered 1,700 voters in the last two weeks – it’s been phenomenal.”
Numbers registering have increased by 6 per cent in Wells, Somerset, where the Tories are defending a 3,040 majority over the Liberal Democrats, and by 5 per cent in Somerton and Frome, where the Liberal Democrats’ notional majority over the Tories is 595.
This rise in voter registration makes prognosticators wonder whether these new voters will actually show up at the polls. Recent trends have shown a decline in voter turnout in the UK. According to The Independent:
Election turnout has been steadily dropping since 1950 when 83.9 per cent of the adult population voted. It fell to just 59.4 per cent in 2001, slightly recovering to 61.4 per cent four years later. Political leaders will be hoping that two out of three electors will turn out this time.
Commentators such as Dame Margaret Eaton, chair of the Local Government Association sound an optimistic note about turnout: “Any sign of increases in the number of people registering to vote can only be good news for democracy. It is crucial people not only register to vote, but make sure they turn out on polling day so their voice is heard.”
If these new voters turn out in large numbers they will provide a new argument for shortening voter registration deadlines not only in the UK but here in the US. A major impediment to voter participation has consistently been found to be registration deadlines which are set too far in advance of election day. By moving the deadline by just eleven days the UK has taken a step in the right direction.