Responding to Sarah Birch's criticisms of the data-sharing proposed under new individual electoral registration reforms, Mark Pack argues that the answer lies in giving people control over their personal data.

It is a curio about the relative roles of the US and Northern Ireland in Westminster political culture that debates about electoral registration often feature references to America, with its very different systems, and only rarely feature Northern Ireland, with its very similar system.

The lessons from Northern Ireland are very pertinent and are two-fold:

  • first, that getting the initial transition wrong can produce a large fall in the electorate
  • second, that if you then get the regular process right, registration levels in the medium term end up being decent rather than collapsing.

The first lesson certainly has been learned, with key differences in the transition process proposed for the rest of the UK from that used in Northern Ireland.

On the second point, one of the risks, as Sarah Birch argues in her Juncture article, is that people react to how they perceive the system rather than to the obscure technical details of how it actually works. There is an obvious parallel here with the new university tuition fees system and the risk that people react to a large nominal amount of debt rather than making decisions based on careful calculations of likely future monthly repayment sums.

Sarah Birch's argument is that using data from other sources to help make for a more accurate electoral register creates the risk that people will want to stay off the register because they see it too closely interlinked with other aspects of the state, echoing what happened with the poll tax in the early 1990s.

There is, however, much merit in making a proper virtue of this impending overlap: don't focus so much on keeping data separate but instead focus on giving the public control over whether or not their own data should be kept separate or shared.

If I were to move, I would be quite happy to let the gas company, the TV Licensing authority, the local council's tax department, the electoral registration services and many others know, all in one go. Other people may well not be happy to do the same - but in the desire to ensure that those who want to keep data separate rightly have their rights respected we have too often overlooked the opportunities to make it easier to share data wherever people are happy for this to happen.

The best outcome would be a shared change of address service with three tiers:

  1. only tell the electoral registration authorities at old and new addresses
  2. also tell public services
  3. also tell any commercial services who wish to buy into notifications that someone in their database has moved.

(This happens to some degree with the Royal Mail postal redirection service and its option to pass on your change of address to third parties, though this only applies when people purchase this extra service and it does not separate out public services from commercial outfits.)

Giving people more control of their own data is almost always a good thing, and all the more so when it can help ensure to that another worthy policy - individual electoral registration - works well.