Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about voting reform, calling for a serious review of the registration system as a starting point.
Not long ago I read that Cornwall County Council is seeking to ban second home owners in the county from registering to vote because they don’t pay full Council Tax and yet can have a full vote for local councillors. The Lib Dems especially think this is costing them seats.
They also assert, rightly in my opinion, that these second home owners are also registered at their ‘main’ address elsewhere and that it would be possible for some of them at least to vote more than once at a General Election. Indeed it would, and who’s to know? Now that anyone can have a postal vote simply by ticking a box on the registration form, are the hard worked registration staffs of each local authority going to cross-check with their opposite numbers in an infinity of other authorities to see that Fred Bloggs of 15 Acacia Drive Birmingham hasn’t also voted in Newquay or Polperro? This when the number of registered postal voters in the recent Surbiton Hill by-election was over 1,700.
Cornwall is reckoned to have 13,600 or so second home owners who would be affected by the ban. But think on this – there are many thousands of voters who don’t pay the Council Tax at all and are transient and temporary residents within every town with a university in it. Most of them will be registered both at their parents’ address and in their university town. I found to my surprise that I was when a post-graduate at Manchester in 1968-9. My Hall of Residence had registered me. At that time, however, the voting age was 21 and so very few undergraduates could vote at all and the numbers of voters was tiny. Then Harold Wilson lowered the voting age to 18 and since that time we have had a government which has had an official target of cramming roughly half the population into some sort of university. This has created a situation beside which the number of second home owners in Cornwall dwindles into insignificance.
At the last GE the Lib Dems successfully tapped this vote reservoir with their pledge to end tuition fees – remember? How many Lib Dem MPs with unis in their constituencies have majorities well less than the number of registered student voters? Quite a few, I think. Now I notice that Ed Miliband is trying a variant of the same theme with a pledge to cut tuition fees (a Labour invention, by the way) to £6,000.
Making promises of this kind to specific interest groups is not new. But never in our history since the abolition of property qualifications has there been so much scope for multiple registration of individuals and for some at least of those individuals to vote more than once without likelihood of detection.
I may be exaggerating and, in a way, I hope I am but I have seen precious little evidence in the past 12 months to convince me that the powers that be are taking this anything like seriously enough.
What do I think would be practical and fair? For all electors to register once only each year at a place of residence they deem to be their principal one and not to be able to register anywhere else within six months of having made that choice.