Electoral registration in Britain: inequality, reform and the prospects for automatic registration

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Social Sciences


Lower levels of electoral registration among certain social groups is under-studied, but patterns of under-registration concentrate among certain already disadvantaged and alienated groups.

The recent changes to electoral registration rules has led to concerns that some groups may have been impacted negatively. Government consultation on the impact on under-registered groups such as the young, those in privately rented accommodation and BAME groups, has concluded that these may be at risk under the new individual registration (IER) system. However, the reforms may have dealt with some causes of marginality. For example, people in multi-occupier households may not have - under the previous system - received registration forms addressed to 'the present occupier'. Now, under the IER rules they would be individually prompted, and the reach may in fact be improved.

The UK format of voluntary registration seems outdated. Most of European countries employ automatic voter registration and some form of this has been recommended by the Electoral Commission. Other countries might offer lessons from their different procedures that shed light on the relationship with inequalities and attitudes of trust.

1) Assess the impact of the new registration system on vulnerable social groups, using the Electoral Registers.
2) Assess the relationship between registration rules and social inequalities and political trust and other relevant attitudes in the UK.
3) Extend this to an international comparison, drawing lessons for the recommended move to automatic voter registration.

Academic impact
The literature on registration is sparse; the last 2 books resulting from the British Election Study do not mention registration (Clarke et al 2004; Whiteley et al 2013). In the US, most literature focuses on the influence of registration rules on voter turnout; and the literature evaluating registration drives among certain under-registered populations. While international reports on registration have been published, these are non-academic publications with purely descriptive value.
As a result, the proposed study will be in many ways the first of its kind and thus an important original contribution to the literature.
It is also likely to have a substantial non-academic impact as it fits squarely within one of the main areas of work by The Electoral Commission and is thus likely to be used by them extensively.

Methods and data

1. Aggregate level analysis of registration levels and turnout pre and post reform:

Comparison of the historical and current Electoral Registers to observe the impact of the change in registration rules. We will sample areas with high ethnic minority concentration, high multiple deprivation and with a highly transient/young population, as well as control areas. We will also use the available information on age, name and postcode. We will include the Local Authorities named by Electoral Commission as having particularly large drops in registration following the reform (such as Greater Manchester).

2. Longitudinal analysis of the relationship between registration and political trust and other democratic attitudes

2 long running ESRC datasets (British Election Study and Understanding Society) will be used to understand the relationship between attitudes and registration, and alienation and wider demographics.

3. Internationally comparative study on the relationship between registration rules, inequality and democratic attitudes

One or more internationally comparable datasets will be used to understand the relationship between attitudes, social inequality and registration internationally. We envisage that this will lead to an examination of the benefits (if any) of automatic electoral registration.


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000665/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2071950 Studentship ES/P000665/1 01/10/2018 30/09/2022 Kenneth Paul Rushworth