The deadline for getting yourself onto the electoral register is 20th April – you can register to vote here –, but it already seems as though changes to the way the registration takes place have meant that far fewer people will end up voting in 2015 than in 2010. Figures released earlier this week suggest it might be as many as 800,000 people fewer.
It’s not all bad: the changes, which mean that individuals have to register themselves rather than relying on the ‘head of household’ to do so for them, were brought in partly to reduce fraud. But nonetheless senior politicians have voiced their concern; Labour’s Sadiq Khan told the Evening Standard that “the whole legitimacy of our democracy” will be challenged if voter registration levels don’t improve before 20th April.
But there are plenty of attempts under way to combat these unsettling trends. In Birmingham, which we visited on our roadtrip, we caught up with two of them: Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote.
Bite the Ballot, which has offices in London as well as in Birmingham, focuses on turning out the youth vote and is keen to spread the word that spoiling a ballot is a legitimate way of acting on May 7th.
It also runs Verto, an app to help people decide which party’s policies – rather than their spin – is closest to their own preferences. “My mother, who’s voted a particular party all her life, used it,” said Sawsan Bastawy, Bite the Ballot’s community engagement officer in Birmingham, “and she was shocked by how much she disagrees with some of their policies.”
Bastawy also spoke to us about the large number of people who are unaware that spoiling their ballot is an option. “But lots of young people are going to spoil them now,” she adds.
Part of her strategy to turn out young people in Birmingham on May 7th is to get people to march down to the polling stations together. This ran into the obstacle that, for the sake of ensuring that voters cannot be intimidated, there are regulations on behavior around polling stations – for instance, the Polling Stations (Regulation) Bill of 2006. So instead “we’re gathering a few streets away, then walk in together, then have a party in a nearby community centre.”
Another organisation that is putting significant effort into getting people to register to vote is Operation Black Vote. The BAME population has historically had a much lower registration rate. In 2010, 7% of the white British population were not registered to vote, compared with 19% of ethnic minorities. BAME voters have also disproportionately resided in safe inner-city Labour seats, although new research by Operation Black Vote suggests this is no longer the case: in the introduction to ‘Power of the Black Vote in 2015.’ Simon Woolley, National Coordinator of Operation Black Vote, writes of “the shift of where BME political power has been… In the past it was almost exclusively in urban, inner city areas, which barely changed political hands.” But now “in 168 marginal seats the BME electorate is larger than the majority in which the seat was won.”
When we met Operation Black Vote in south Birmingham, the team, who had been stopping off at locations across the city throughout the day, had parked their large orange bus by a college. Staff and volunteers took turns at manning the megaphone and encouraging passers-by register to vote on one of OBV’s on-board laptops.
One passionate man we spoke to told us about his ideas for how to encourage people to take a greater interest in politics – it has to start in school, he said.
“We need better education. People need to study politics – with a small ‘p.’ There need to be more school councils, children need to learn that democracy is fundamentally about representing people.
“Call it politics or government, whatever you like, but there has to be better education.”
With one day left till the deadline to register to vote, time will tell exactly how successful Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote have been. But one thing is certainly for sure: it is worrying just how many people are not even aware that they need to register. “Do I need to register?” was a far too common response to Operation Black Vote’s megaphone.