I didn’t vote last election. This puts me in good company, most people didn’t – in England only 36% of people voted in the local elections. The problem is I was trying a lot harder to get on the system than most of them – and it still went wrong.
My friends and I had moved into Waltham Forest two months before the election and so hadn’t been caught by the annual canvas. We had completed the arcane ritual of printing off a pdf, scribbling our details with ink to prove we existed and putting that in the post so someone else could retype it. We turned around and threw salt over our shoulder. We did all the things right, so it was a concern when we weren’t sent polling cards and a pain to turn up at the polling station and discover we weren’t registered.
My housemate complained to the council and on the back of the information that returned that I sent in an FOI to get a more precise picture. An error meant that 430 people who were put on to the system between the 7th and 12th of May weren’t put on the main register. This problem was noticed and a supplementary list was produced for the polling stations. This would have been great, if only our polling station had consulted it. Democracy, like the devil, is all in the details.
Basically this was really unlikely – it’s entirely possible the rest of the 430 went to polling stations that checked the second list and were able to vote, it’s impossible to find out. How you register to vote has now changed to a better system so the only real lesson for the future is that polling staff could be better trained – we were given several different answers to ‘when was the cut-off date?’, which was unhelpful for getting to the root of the issue.
But the big, unavoidable, factor in this problem is that we’re renters. By being late onto the register, the risk of something going wrong increased – renters are more likely to move and be later on the register. In Waltham Forest 2,982 people were added to the register after the master register was produced in February. I’d bet a lot of those were renters. A lot more would never have got that far.
The 2012-2013 English Housing Survey found a third of private renters have lived in their home for less than a year and 80% less than five years – for homeowners 81% had been in their home for at least five years. This is an astonishing difference that helps explain why private renters are so badly registered. 87% of homeowners are registered to vote, social renters at doing slightly worse at 78% but for private renters the figures are terrible – only 56% are registered to vote.
56%. Just think about that. Only 13% of homeowners aren’t registered – but almost half of renters aren’t in the system. There are a lot of reasons why homeowners have more sway in politics – but this is definitely one of them.
Even local elections matter for housing policy. Local councils are making decisions on how to deal with their own housing problems, much of the headway being made in landlord registration is at the local level.
The difficulty we had registering to vote shouldn’t happen again. The new individual electoral registration system lets you register online – making the process much smoother.
One of the things we want to do at Waltham Forest Renters is get more renters registered. That’s why there’s a link to the registration page at the top of the site. There’s a whole group of people being excluded from the process and this hurts our prospects for fixing the situation.
So when you move, remember to register to vote. Register early (when you move), register often (every time you move).
And then actually vote. That’s important too.