Changes to the way we register to vote could mean that up to 2 million people will ‘drop off’ the electoral register by December. Most of these people are either students or those who live in urban areas, and many are some of the most vulnerable and under-represented people in the country. The government has pushed forward these proposals due to the Boundary Review which will take place in 2016, and will be based on the ‘updated’ electoral register. And of course, the fact that those from low socio-economic backgrounds and students are being targeted means that this is a massive issue in Southampton.
The government have decided to bring forward the deadline for individual voter registration by a whole year to December 2015, against the advice of their own independent expert body. A narrow victory for the proposal in the House of Lords last month means that this will go ahead. After the constituency boundaries are re-written next year, those living in urban areas, students, and low propensity voters will be vastly and disproportionately under-represented in Parliament. This makes it an obvious issue for an urban, student heavy area like Southampton. It is no understatement to say that this amounts to a democratic crisis. Without a right to vote, many of the most vulnerable people in our society will be left without a voice, and as a country that prides itself on democracy and fairness, none of us should allow this to happen. Quite frankly, we should be outraged.
In recent weeks UoS HOPE not hate Society have been campaigning and spreading awareness of the issue on my campus. What surprised us the most is the lack of people who even knew about the change. The media has been very quiet on the issue, and so have the government themselves. Any form of information about Voter Registration has been given in a roundabout and confusing way, meaning that most people have either ignored it or not realised the actual issue. The changes mean that every person who is eligible to vote and has not been approved for the new register will have to register individually, instead of as a household. This quite obviously includes new students who have recently moved to University this year, and students who are renting and moving house each year – yet it appears very few students know about it.
The fact that up to 2 million people could drop off the register, which is about 4% of the total register itself, is an obvious issue in regards to democracy in the UK. This is especially prevalent at a time when voter engagement seems to be on the rise, with so many people joining both Labour and the Greens in the past year, and an incredible turnout for the Scottish referendum. However, it also causes problems in other ways. Those who live on the margins of society, who already often feel politically isolated and under-represented are most likely to drop off the register, and without a way of participating in society excluded groups become more and more vulnerable to extremism. HOPE not hate are particularly worried about this issue as it is this political disengagement of communities that can turn people towards far-right fascist groups. The changes also mean an unrepresentative Parliament, something that those fighting for social justice and equality will want to limit.
The main issue here is a lack of understanding and knowledge from the general public. Many reading this will be asking what they can do to help, as the changes have now passed through both houses in Parliament. Many groups such as HOPE not hate and the Electoral Reform Society are running campaigns to spread awareness and get as many people registered to vote as possible before December. By contacting these organisations you can help out by spreading awareness of the issue. Talking to friends, co-workers and fellow students about the issue, and making sure people you know are registered is also a great way to do your part for democracy.
We now have less than a month to do as much as we can to register vulnerable people and make sure they don’t lose their democratic right.
HOPE not hate Society are on campus every Monday, Wednesday and Friday spreading awareness, talking to people and handing out leaflets. We are trying to get as many people to register as we can before the deadline. To see exactly what it is that we are doing and when, and to get involved in the campaign, make sure to follow our Facebook page here.