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The student vote is potentially very powerful, but a new system of electoral registration threatens to reduce the voice of students in the general election to a whisper. Higher Education Policy Institute Director Nick Hillman asks whether universities should consider helping students to vote to be part of their duty of care.
During 2014, a new system of voter registration has been rolled out across the country. In the past, it was the legal duty of each householder to register everyone in their property to vote. Now, it is the responsibility of each individual to get themselves on the electoral roll. The block registration of people living in communal accommodation, like a hall of residence or college, is history.
The right to vote in the UK was originally linked to property ownership, so having a system of household registration made some sense. Yet the link to property ownership was abolished in 1928. Nearly a century later, the voter registration system is now catching up with the principle of one-person one-vote.
Local authorities have had until 1st December to publish their first lists of voters compiled using the new Individual Electoral Registration (IER) system. The change to IER is relatively uncontroversial. All the main political parties have backed the shift while in government: Labour began the move and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition have accelerated the process. It is hard to find anyone who thinks it is a bad idea in principle.
But no policy is perfect and IER risks muffling the voice of certain groups of voters, particularly highly-mobile groups such as students. When Northern Ireland shifted to IER more than a decade ago, in some electoral wards fewer than half of all eligible people appeared on the new register. Areas with large numbers of students had particularly low registration rates.
Transitional procedures have been used to ensure a smooth change from the old system to the new one. They are based on data matching, using information from the Department for Work and Pensions and Council Tax records. It is hard to imagine a system that could serve students less well. Across England and Wales, 87 per cent of voters were automatically transferred; in one student-heavy ward in Lancaster, just 0.1 per cent were.
HEPI’s new pamphlet, Do students swing elections? Registration, turnout and voting behaviour among full-time students, includes case studies of universities that have worked hard to avoid the problem of low registration. Manchester Metropolitan University and Sheffield University have embedded voter registration into their student enrolment process, for example. There is a need to learn from such initiatives and to spread best practice because the shift to IER is a one-off change while the challenges it poses are permanent.
Students have as much right to be heard at the ballot box as everyone else and higher education institutions need to consider whether helping students register to vote should be part of their wider duty of care.
If anyone knows about this topic, it is the Minister for Universities and Science, Greg Clark, who steered much of the relevant legislation through as a Cabinet Office Minister. So he is particularly well placed to give a lead in ensuring students have a loud and clear voice rather than a whisper.
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Related: HEi News: Student vote could tip the balance of power in Britain, study suggests
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