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On-the-grid by default: U.S. and UK move towards automated voter registration

Tue 19 Jul 2016

The United States and the United Kingdom seem set on making it difficult for citizens to live ‘off the grid’; both are currently moving forward legislation which would enrol their countries’ citizens into the electoral register based either on other interactions with the government or by mining ‘public data’.

The U.S. congress introduced the Automatic Voter Registration Act last Thursday, which would see citizens applying for a driving licence or other routine civil interactions ‘opted in’ as electors, whilst the UK’s Electoral Commission submitted a new report on the same day, and with the same ambit of accelerating and ratifying new systems for automatic enrolment.

Stateside, automated registration has been pioneered in Oregon (where it’s known as ‘motor voter’, due to the use of DMV information), with Vermont, West Virginia, California and Illinois following suit. However, those interacting with the DMV – and, presumably, other government departments that might eventually be co-opted into the scheme – are given the option not to be registered as electors during their communications with other official departments.

In the United Kingdom the Electoral Commission has said that the country “cannot wait for more than a decade for the next phase of change to be delivered”, with regional councils apparently ‘itching’ to bring in new digital systems towards automation, principally to avoid the costs of re-registering voters for each new electoral process. However the Labour Party has argued that ‘close to a million people’ would disappear from the electoral register as a result of these economies.

Opt-out clause in Vermont DMV application form

Opt-out clause in Vermont DMV application form

The UK’s current system of polling households rather than individuals is acknowledged to be out of date with current societal trends, since it requires a ‘head of household’. Nonetheless, even under this 19thC system, individuals refusing to participate in the registration process risk a £1000 fine and a criminal record.

The notional impetus towards automated voter registration is, as usual, the cutting of staff and costs, but advocates for automated enrolment see the process as an opportunity to re-include marginal demographics that have fallen away from the democratic system.

At the same time as millions of dead people remain registered to vote, it’s estimated that 51 million Americans are not enrolled.

In Australia, where voting is a legal requirement, the Electoral Commission already enrols citizens to vote based on ‘information from other government agencies’. However, those who see the Australian system as coercive and Draconian should bear in mind that the cost of not voting in an Australian election is only $20 AUD; notwithstanding, there is no alternative to registration in Australia, which has found automated enrolment to be a cost-saving measure.

Canada also operates such a system, but allows Canadian voters to opt out, unlike Australia.

In February the Electronic Frontier Foundation outlined the potential privacy risks associated with participation in elections, even going so far as to warn voters to turn their mobile devices off whilst approaching voting centres.

Tags:

government news privacy U.S. UK
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