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Why can’t we all, like our students, vote for RON?

Why can’t we all, like our students, vote for RON?

🕔17.Apr 2015

Days ahead of the deadline, Chris Game from the University of Birmingham looks at the “blunder” of voter registration and possible incentives for increasing turnout. 

I like to feel that the older I get, the fewer are the things, even during a general election campaign, that really irritate me. One that increasingly does, though, is when people who I feel should know better seem not to have noticed that for at least two years now Birmingham has had five universities.

I raise this because I reckon only two of the five – UCB and Newman – have started their summer terms or semesters this week. Certainly most University of Birmingham undergrads won’t set foot on campus until their summer term starts on April 27 – or exactly a week after the April 20 voter registration deadline for next month’s elections.

Which means that the students who’ve volunteered this week to join the campaign to round up and register last-minute potential voters – shown here at the university library’s voter registration and free tic tac desk (they’re in the bucket!) – have, to put it gently, hardly been crushed in the rush.

It’s not, in the Argos-size catalogue of government blunders, a real biggie. It is, though, worth recalling how it’s come about, and indeed pandering to those who preach that every accident can be turned into an opportunity (though those people really do irritate me!).

Wednesday of this week was #DeDay – Democracy Day – signifying the start of the final coordinated push before next Monday’s registration deadline.

It was organised, like February’s National Voter Registration Day, by Bite the Ballot, a not-for-profit community movement to encourage particularly young people to reject Russell Brand’s baleful ‘Stop voting’ gospel and instead ‘make their votes count’.

And, along with students and volunteers from numerous other non-partisan organisations, they’re currently working their socks off – partly to save the face of the Government and the Electoral Commission.

You may recall the media reports back in February of the Electoral Commission’s estimate of 920,000 voters having ‘disappeared’ from the new electoral register, especially in cities and wards with large student populations, following last year’s switch from household to individual registration.

It was a tantalising number, which alarmists quickly upped and interpreted to suggest there would be a ‘million missing voters’ from the 2015 election.

But they were wrong – at least mostly. First, there were still weeks until the registration deadline. You can track daily numbers on the Cabinet Office’s dashboard, and April alone has seen over 750,000 new registrations.

Second, a key purpose of individual registration was to clean up registers and remove duplicate entries, so some ‘missing’ voters are to be expected and are a kind of proxy indicator of success.

The big qualification, though, is that the most frequent duplicates were students, previously entitled to register twice – at their home address and at their university/college address – although in a general election to vote only once.

Some were no doubt copied on to the new register at their home address, and, in the absence until recently of much voter registration publicity, hadn’t yet registered at their term-time address.

It’s here, I’d suggest, Government bodies have been remiss. They’ve known for five years the election date, the registration deadline, and Easter vacations, yet for months they left all the hard work to others: councils, political parties, Bite the Ballot and similar campaigning groups, universities, colleges and schools.

But those ‘missing million’ headlines, though misleading, apparently spooked them. Over Easter, therefore, they’ve been trying to coax college authorities and student unions into organising campus registration events and sign-up sessions – for a student population, many of whom are miles away still on vacation.

This is unfortunate, but in no way diminishes the importance of #DeDay-type campaigns, and the embarrassing fact – embarrassing to our political leaders, not to them – that many young people in particular aren’t aware even of the need to register to vote. The information simply doesn’t reach them.

Why weren’t they told about it when they got their National Insurance number – which registration now requires – or texted on their 17th or even 16th birthday?

But the bigger problem is not lack of motivation to register, but to vote. We know from the Scottish independence referendum that young people, if they see some point in it, will vote almost as readily as the rest of us.

They’ll far more readily, though, not vote, and in recent elections huge numbers have seen no point whatever – in the limited selection of party candidates seemingly inhabiting a different world from them, in their limited spectrum of policies and self-serving practices, and in the irrelevance and apparent corruption of the whole party-dominated parliamentary system.

So here’s my suggested deal – or accident-enabled opportunity. In recognition of students’ help in saving the Government’s face over a mishandled registration campaign, let’s learn from their way of doing elections.

Almost all student elections nowadays have two incentivising features which our national and local elections generally don’t, both of which can be seen in the reporting of a typical result from the University of Birmingham’s recent Guild officer elections.

UoB election







The first is a transferable vote system – as in Scottish local and most Northern Ireland elections. The second is the chance to ‘Re-open Nominations’, which at the UoB we abbreviate and over-punctuate to ‘R.O.N.’.

A transferable vote enables you, if your first-preference candidate has no chance of election or has already exceeded their vote quota, to transfer it to your second- or third-preference candidate.

Through possibly several rounds of counting, the voter’s stake in the election and the winner’s mandate are both enhanced, and far fewer votes ‘wasted’ than in our First-past-the-Post system.

Moreover, if you don’t have a second or third – or even a first – preference, there’s always RON. And if, as occasionally happens, RON wins, then nominations are indeed re-opened and the election is re-run.

It’s a positive abstention, similar to NOTA – ‘None of the Above’: an option that any democratic system should logically incorporate, to enable the express withholding of consent, rather than merely abstention or spoiling one’s ballot.

Numerous countries – including France, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, and most recently India – already offer voters either a NOTA or RON option or the equivalent, and the idea is finally being taken seriously here too.

A NOTA option was advocated recently by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, as easily the top choice in its survey of proposals for increasing voter engagement. And None of the Above: Your vote is your voice is also the title of one of this year’s youth-directed and best campaign books: by TV presenter Rick Edwards.

So, NOTA or RON: they’re not the most intellectual electoral reforms, but I’d bet they’d add a few percentage points to next month’s turnout.

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