Learning from the Democrats: Increasing voter turnout

Individual Electoral Registration (IER) was ushered in amongst cries of gerrymandering in the summer on 2012; by February 2013 it had been rushed through Parliament and was law. But love it or loath it IER is here to stay. The question now is what can the Labour Party do to ensure it’s not left at an electoral disadvantage?

There are two ways the Labour Party can adapt to this change in the electoral landscape, firstly through legislative and procedural changes – making sure that the system actually works. Secondly, by changing how we campaign. In both cases we can, and must, look to our American cousins for guidance on what to do and what not to do.

In the UK IER is not new, nor is it a Conservative idea, indeed it was in the 2010 Labour Party Manifesto and has been in place in Northern Ireland since 2002. But it brings with it unique problems – most notably the number of electors, and particularly young electors, who have fallen off the electoral register. Between December 2014 and December 2015 the electoral register became 1.48 MILLION voters lighter, despite a growing population.

IER is more of a problem for Labour than it is for the Tories for a number of reasons. Firstly studies suggest that Labour’s core groups of those from a lower socio-economic and the young are less likely to register and even if they are registered they are still less likely to vote. The transient nature of our core vote means that they are more likely to fall off the register as they need to resign every time they move.

So what can be done?

Here is where we can look to the USA for guidance. Although research by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimate that in 2012 at least 51 million Americans (24%) are not registered to vote there have been numerous studies which look to address this. They have highlighted two main paths to increasing voter turnout.

The first is by opening the number of avenues to registration. In 1993 the ‘Motor voter’ Act was passed which required states to offer citizens the ability to register when they renewed their driving licence. The act also allowed states to offer voter registration through public institutions such as libraries, schools and disability centres. In the UK, where electors have to register either online or by the post there is a clear case for opening up this process.

Additionally the Act allows states to implement same-day registration. Meaning that voters do not need to have remembered to register weeks before an election but can register as they are going into the voting booth. In the UK the website for voter registration crashed on the final day of registration for the EU referendum so allowing same day registration would seem sensible.

The second way of increasing voter turnout is to reduce the barriers to being able to register. In several US States the opposite has been happening, with some states attempting to implement ID restrictions on electoral registration. Earlier this year court cases were heard in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Kansas where the state had tried to restrict the ability of individuals to register of vote, under the guise of restricting voter fraud. This is particularly pertinent as Eric Pickles has recently called for photo ID to be required when voters attend their polling station, again under the auspices to trying to reduce voter fraud.

In the UK you need to know your NI number to register online. While this is not necessarily overly burdensome it does create a barrier to being able to register as not everyone will know or have immediate access to their NI number. Being able to register at government centres, with a photo ID could provide another avenue to easy registration.

But it is not just through legislative and procedural frameworks that the Labour Party must look. Being in government is the best way to ensure those changes and for now at least we are in opposition.

Therefore we must look at having registration drives as a core part of our long term electoral strategy, as they are for the Democrats. The principle behind this is simple, in order to win an election you need to ensure that your supporters vote, and to do this you first need to ensure that they are able to vote. It is essentially an extension of the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) strategy. Parallels can be drawn with the Labour leadership election in 2015 whereby Jeremy Corbyn was able to win by ensuring that the electorate was in his favour.

There will need to be careful consideration as to how this works in practice, previously we didn’t knock on doors where there was no one registered but this might have to change as it could be a house filled with unregistered, Labour supporters.

Labour now need to look ahead as to how it’s going to look to tackle these problems but it’s best chance of doing so successfully is by looking at where others have succeeded or failed in the past.


John Sailing is a Young Fabian member and will be attending the USA delegation in September

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