Using electoral register lists might not be a danger to democracy but it is dumb

Direct mail has been described as many things and usually the monikers are less than complimentary. An affront to democracy, however, is not a label generally bandied around by DM’s detractors.

Russell Parsons

The Local Government Association, the self-proclaimed “national voice for local government”, has called for the prohibition of the sale of prospect lists by local authorities to mailing houses.

There are two versions of the electoral register, a full and open version, the LGA says. The latter contains an open list of names and addresses of people that have failed to tick an opt out box when filling in their voter registration form.

Local authorities, the LGA continues, are “legally obliged” to sell the details on to anyone who wants them. Details can be bought for as little as 50p per person, it continues.

“Councils say this is unhealthy for democracy and causes widespread confusion and mistrust among residents. Some people have been deterred from signing up to vote under the mistaken belief that everyone’s details can be bought.”

For good measure the LGA adds that the practice could be fuelling a “junk mail bonanza”.

The question of whether the current state of affairs is unhealthy for democracy is debatable but for the interests of this article I will swerve that polemic. Whether the sale of details from the open electoral register leads to a “junk mail bonanza” is also not a minefield I want to enter.

The issue here is transparency and in improving transparency engendering trust.

It doesn’t matter how useful an up to date list of local authority verified names and addresses is to marketers they need to ask themselves this fundamental question. Is it the right and sensible thing to use the details for marketing purposes?

Failure to opt out of DM even when the box is unticked on literature sent by the brand itself should not be treated as a green light to target. Using data from an electoral register that people offered information willingly to for purposes as far removed from ultimately receiving addressed mail should be avoided at all cost.

Having a prospects name doesn’t make it targeted, not even personal. Receiving something from a brand they have no connection with is only likely to stoke the fires of the very voluble ‘junk mail’ haters and push it even close to the recycle bin of history.

The practice ticks the DM boxes of being data driven and one to one but only using the broadest possible definition. I cannot say if it is “unhealthy for democracy”, what I can conclude is it is dumb marketing.

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