Students are an important voting group in many of 50for15’s marginal constituencies: Arfon, Bristol West, Hendon, Hull North, Lancaster and Fleetwood, Northampton North, Norwich South, and Oxford West and Abingdon all contain significant student populations. However, the students living in these seats won’t have any influence on the final outcome of these extremely close contests if they do not register to vote.
In Oxford West and Abingdon, 50for15 teamed up with student newspaper Cherwell to investigate whether students have registered to vote and what people thought can be done to encourage more to sign up.
According to recent information released by Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), less than half of students at the university have registered to vote in the city. This could be because the other half of the student body have decided to register at home. It turned out that from those we spoke to, about half had registered to vote, and half still had not got round to it.
“Oxford is so pro-rights, pro-democracy, pro-debate, and we say we are all these things, but unless you actually do vote, then you’re not holding up to your ideals.” commented one student, who had not as yet registered to vote, but said she would before the April 20th deadline.
“I feel like some kind of automatic voter registration through college would ensure a greater turnout” suggested one student. However, it is the recent changes to the voter registration system in law which have transferred the ability of colleges to register all of its students living in college accommodation to a responsibility of the individual student. Therefore students who were once registered by their college now have to register themselves.
The change to the electoral registration system was initiated by plans brought in under the Labour government, and has now has been implemented by the coalition.
For Ruth Meredith, the Vice-President for Charities and Community at OUSU, this implementation has not been communicated thoroughly. She remarked that the “purpose behind [the changes to the law] were really positive, encouraging people to take up their own political agency themselves and making it their own responsibility. But clearly not enough was done to communicate to students and to all people that the system had changed.”
Oxford is divided into two constituencies: the fairly safe Labour seat of Oxford East, and Oxford West and Abingdon, a hyper marginal Conservative-Liberal Democrat constituency. For one student living in Oxford East, it was the safeness of the seat which made him despondent towards voting: “You do get the feeling that even if you do register to vote, it’s not going to have a huge amount of impact.”
Indeed, certain students were strategically planning where to vote based on the marginality of their home and university seats. Students who live in separate councils when at home and at university are able to vote in council elections in both areas-provided that they are registered- but can only vote in one constituency for the general election, so have to decide where. One student voter found that “registering to vote online for a postal vote is much, much easier”.
Although the headline figure that half of students at Oxford University have not registered to vote might belie the fact that a proportion of those who have not appeared to have registered may have done so for their home address, many we spoke to had not registered at all.
One thing that most people agreed with was that the online system to register was fairly straightforward. To make sure that you can vote in the election, ensure that you register by April 20th. The online process takes around 5 minutes, and you need your National Insurance number. https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote