Looking for young voters? Don’t look on the electoral register

What would happen if your boss found out that more than half of the customers you look after had disappeared from your database? It probably doesn’t bear thinking about (and is also not that likely in a commercial environment).

Yet that is exactly what has happened in the case of Electoral Registration Officers. According to a report just published by the Electoral Commission, 56 per cent of 17 to 24-year-olds are not registered to vote. Among those living in private rented accomodation, 49 per cent of tenants are not registered. Worst of all, among those who have lived at their current address for less than a year, just 21 per cent are on the electoral roll.

That is a pretty poor performance for a group of people whose sole job is to ensure that anybody eligible to have the vote gets it by signing onto the ER. The Commission notes that with the possibility of an election being called at any time, it is the duty of these offices to promote the voters’ roll and keep it up-to-date. This they are failing to do.

When the Commission audited the ER using 2001 Census data, it found that 3.5 million people were missing. That is a lot of voters who are disenfranchised, especially in the era of rolling registration. (If you are one of those not registered, you can do so up to 11 days before polling day, by the way.)

Given predictions of a hung parliament, these missing votes could be seen as decisive. Absent youth voters are especially significant since their patterns of support for a party have not yet been engrained and can be swung.

That has been one of the objectives of the Conservative Party over the last few years, by campaigning in swing seats to ensure they are “won” even before an election is called. If the ER on which they have based that activity turns out to be faulty, their confidence in winning is likely to be misplaced.

And that could be a key outcome from the Electoral Commission’s findings. By highlighting the fact that many voters are not registered – but still have plenty of time to do so – there could be a late surge in eligibility. That is a lot of extra ticks which could put any one of the main parties into power come June.

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