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Why registering to vote matters

4 February 2016
Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK
Polling station sign

I can clearly recall the first time I voted in an election. While the memory of whose name it was that I put a cross against has faded, I remember feeling that this was an important milestone in my life: I was a student, I was an adult, I was living away from home, and I was having my say in the democratic process.

But according to figures released by Labour during National Voter Registration Drive week (1-7 February 2016), an estimated 800,000 people have dropped off the electoral register with students in university towns and cities, along with young people in general and renters, are at highest risk of being disenfranchised.

 2016 is another big year for democracy. There are elections in May for the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly, London Assembly and Mayor of London, and with commentators speculating that the EU Referendum will also be in 2016, so it is more important than ever that students are registered to be able to vote – should they choose to do so.

So why are so many young people at risk of missing out on being able to vote? In June 2014 a new system of electoral registration was introduced in the UK whereby students are required to register to vote individually rather than by a ‘head of household’ who registers all occupants at an address. This change meant that universities could no longer register their residential students en masse, and it was over to students to take action themselves. Some missed, or ignored, the repeated calls for them register; others fell at the first hurdle by not having their National Insurance number to hand (although some councils have now agreed to accept student numbers as ID verification).

After last year’s general election, we asked our members what steps they had taken to register students. Almost all respondents said they had carried out an information campaign, often in conjunction with their students’ union, to raise awareness of the need for students to take a few minutes to go online to www.gov.uk/register-to-vote register. We also learned about a range of innovative campaigns and events – from students with iPads going out to register young people on the spot, using debates and lectures as a platform to encourage registration, to competitions and rewards for halls of residence getting most students to sign up.

Projects such as at the University of Sheffield,  where the university, students’ union and local authority electoral registration officer worked closely together, resulted in an online mechanism to integrate voter registration with start of term university registration. This was the key to boosting numbers on the electoral roll in the city.

The biggest obstacle to overcome – and an issue which most other universities mentioned – was the issue of data protection. Sheffield City Council and the University of Sheffield came to a formal agreement which allowed the university to act as a data collecting agent on behalf of the council with the agreement that they would supply the student data to the council once a year.

In Leicester, a city with a student population of around 21,000, De Montfort University tackled the council’s lack of up-to-date information about where students lived by getting students to confirm their address when they logged onto the student portal with their “Get on the roll” campaign. They were then asked if they wanted to be on the electoral register in Leicester, and details were passed on to the council. It is thought that this processes added around 2,800 students to the register in the city as well as providing an opportunity to ask students whether they wanted a postal vote and if they wanted to be on the public register.

It is clear that integrated voter registration offers many benefits: longer term it is more cost effective than investing in advertising, communications campaigns and voter registration drives; it’s harder for students to miss the opportunity to register; and it keeps records up to date.

A number of universities have introduced, or are looking to introduce, integrated voter registration processes. Universities UK will be building on existing good practice by our members and the lessons already learned at a seminar with politicians and university representatives where we will explore what works, what doesn’t, and what government and politicians could do to help so that as many students and young people as possible get a chance to vote in future elections.

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