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The UK’s future electoral constituencies must have fair representation for young people: here’s how to do it
As several recent elections have shown, in the UK and beyond, major electoral events can hang on small margins. Changes to the rules of the game can therefore have profound consequences. Moreover, they can systematically disadvantage some parties, candidates or groups in society.
On Tuesday 10th November Parliament will debate legislation that will profoundly shape electoral contests in the UK. The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill sets the contours for how electoral boundaries are defined for forthcoming general elections. Part of the bill proposes using the electoral registers as the data source to draw parliamentary constituencies.
This might sound like a technical detail, but it is problematic because the electoral registers are less likely to include the names of young people than older people, since young people are often not registered to vote. Nearly all older voters (94% of those aged 65+) are on the registers. Only 25% of attainers (16 and 17-year olds who will reach electoral age within the life of the register) are included, estimates from 2018 show. Drawing the electoral boundaries around the electoral registers, as the current bill proposes, will therefore systematically give younger people less democratic representation.
Fortunately, a Cross-Party Amendment #16 to was passed in the House of Lords on 8th October 2020 to provide a solution. As the briefing that we wrote with the Electoral Reform Society sets out, this would require the government to come back with proposals to increase the completeness of the electoral register in one year. It also suggests two simple solutions that the government could include.
One key moment in a citizen’s life cycle is the receipt of their National Insurance Number shortly ahead of their 16th birthday, from the Department of Work and Pensions. The letter that they receive is technocratic and uninspiring in nature. However, it could a moment at which citizens are registered to vote. Amendment #16 therefore suggests that, in effect, these letters could be cc:ed to the relevant Electoral Registration Officers. This would provide them with the information that would need to add these citizens on the electoral register with minimal administrative effort. It would be a much more effective system than exists at present. They are currently required to canvas and chase young people asking them to register to vote – visiting schools where possible. This a very resource intensive and impractical process. At a bare minimum, the letter could be a point when citizens are encouraged to register to vote. Since the franchise is 16 in Scotland and Wales for devolved elections, they may be eligible to cast a ballot in the near future.
Responding to government concerns
In the debate in the Lords, the government raised concerns about the proposals. Their concern and a detailed response is given below. We have shared this with the government ministers and hope that they will respond in a constructive way. Information held by the DWP is already used in the electoral registration process, so it would be natural next step to use it to promote the participation of young people in our democracy. Calls to take these steps have previously been supported by the Electoral Commission, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation, a report funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and the House of Lords Report on the Electoral Administration Act. We therefore call on the government to support the participation of the next generation of voters.
Toby James is Professor of Politics and Public Policy in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia.
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is a Reader in Politics at the University of Liverpool.
Maria Sobolewska is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester.