The road to individual voter registration will be paved with data sharing

On Monday 24th January I attended a Cabinet Office event to discuss the implications of the government’s accelerated move to individual voter registration.

ORG’s interest in this area stems from the possible privacy implications of changes to voter registers, and also the chance that modernisations are the first step to introducing online forms of voting, which we would oppose.

The event was bookended by talks from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP (LibDem) and his junior minister Mark Harper MP (Conservative). They both clearly knew their briefs and were keen to push forward the move to individual voter registration and ditch household registration as soon as possible. There’s no doubt that the ‘head of a household’ registering everyone as he sees fit is archaic and prone to fraud (and it would typically be a ‘he’). ORG has long called for a move to individual voter registration as a way to prevent fraud in our electoral system.

However, tied into much of these changes is the use of data matching. Indeed how data matching is being used already and will be used even more was a common theme throughout the event. There seemed to be little concern for this amongst most attendees. That the existing electoral roll is used for ‘anti-fraud initiatives’ wasn’t much concern to most because it should only affect those who have done something ‘wrong’. Yet if we accept that the existing roll is vulnerable to fraud, as the modernisers seem to, then how reliable are the inferences made using its data? Also we muddy the use of the register from being purely about elections to all sorts of other potential uses.

An electoral services officer there told me how officers used to loudly proclaim how registering to vote wouldn’t lead to the data being shared with tax, immigration or any other parts of government. Now that’s all gone, the officer said, and in the small print on the back of the form you are told that it is (quite legally) shared across local and central government, as well as with credit agencies, of course.

The next step will be to use other sources of data, particularly the national insurance database, to infer who isn’t on the electoral roll but should be. This seems worthy, of course we want to help people get registered to vote. Yet… one of the reasons why a new national identity scheme was proposed by the previous government was because none of the existing registers were particularly accurate. Of course nothing is 100% perfect, but the national insurance database is known to be full of inconsistencies and one wonders what new problems will be introduced with a head-long dive into data matching.

The benefits of a more secure electoral system will only be delivered after a huge amount of work understanding the processes, standardising forms and data formats as well as engaging with the very significant number of stakeholders interested in electoral registration. The government also seem undecided on what they will be most closely monitoring as the changes proceed: Will it be voter turnout or the estimated voter registration rates? Because, if all else remains equal, more people on the register may mean lower turnout percentages. Is that something they are willing to countenance after spending £104 million on this programme? What does success look like for the ministers working on this?

We hope that more sensitivity to the privacy and data quality issues of data matching will develop. Also, with a decision still yet to be made on whether a centralised online register (CORE) will be built, ORG remains wary of whether steps will be made towards online voting as a ‘natural progression’ from this work. We remain vigilant.