On the last day to register to vote before the independence referendum – Tuesday 2 September – a group of Yes campaigners visited Edinburgh college with their stall at lunchtime. We didn’t actually manage to set it up.
Instead, we spent the next hour and a half registering people to vote. Almost a hundred of them, men and women, young and old, of all nationalities and backgrounds, from all over Scotland, the EU and the Commonwealth.
And the whole time I kept thinking, what if we hadn’t come? No one else – neither the college management, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) nor even NUS Scotland – had bothered to do a voter registration drive with a group that was clearly vulnerable either to not being registered at all or being registered in the wrong place to actually vote on 18 September. They would have missed out on participating in Scotland’s historic vote.
That day, I ended up handing in over 100 registration forms in an 11pm dash to the registration office. Forms of people signed up at bus queues, on buses shuttling to and from some of Edinburgh’s most deprived schemes and by hanging about outside bingo halls, libraries, schools and delapidated shopping centres. Over the whole of the campaign, I alone supported hundreds of people to register to vote – and there were many like me.
Highlights included the 16 year old registering on his birthday, the Latvian woman who’d lived here three years and whom no one had told she could vote as an EU national (who came and said hello when she voted) and the twin 15 year olds, whose 16th birthday was two days away and in typical teenage boy fashion, faffed around with it all so much they nearly missed their bus. They made for fitting last registrants of the campaign.
Then there’s the woman who took an age to be persuaded to do so, partly because eyeing up the form, it was clearly a literacy step too far but also because she feared someone – whoever he was – knowing where she now was. Whether or not she actually voted, she gave herself the choice to do so, taking an empowering step forward in asserting herself and her sense of self as a person with rights. Actually, there were a lot of women like her.
There’s also the young woman who lived at the top of a block of flats who reckoned she didn’t know enough to be voting. When asked to say what she thought the referendum was about, she gave a powerful and eloquent explanation about power, control and responsibility. Not things I’d hazard, she’d had a lot of in her own life. I talked her through the form which she completed herself and then by arrangement, went back on Referendum day to walk her to the polling place. Although only in her 20s, her capacity had clearly been compromised by some sort of trauma in her life and if I hadn’t gone for her, she wouldn’t have come out to vote.
It wasn’t just registering people to vote. On that floor of those flats alone, we helped four people keep their right to vote by giving them postal vote application forms to complete. We also posted them for them. And I went back to check if they needed their actual votes posted for them too. Why? Because the lift in the flats was often broken and when it was they were captive in their own homes, unable, either through ill health or age, to use the six flights of stairs, and reliant on neighbours to run messages and errands.
When I appeared with my pile of forms an hour before midnight, the helpful ERO sighed in exasperation. They had had people in these areas earlier in the year, knocking on doors, trying to persuade people to register to vote, he said.
But therein lies the problem. People in areas like these don’t open their doors to men – and women – in suits. They don’t trust them, they mistake them for suits they are trying to avoid. Folk in these areas have acute antennae, they smell officialdom a mile off and have spent most of their lives avoiding it. The missing million aren’t just missing from the voter roll or from actually voting, they are also missing from day to day life as we know it.
The Electoral Commission’s proposals to tighten the Code of Conduct for campaigners to prevent folk like me from handling completed registration and absent voting forms completely misunderstands the reasons why traditional registration campaigns have failed and why efforts during the referendum campaign succeeded. I’m trying to work out if this is accidental or deliberate.
What is being deployed is a sledge hammer solution to an acute but minor problem of electoral fraud. The changes are a knock on requirement from the introduction of unique identifier requirements to such forms. The chosen unique identifiers of date of birth and National Insurance number are the problem here. There is no doubt this is highly sensitive personal information which requires careful handling and it is indeed highly valuable to potential and actual criminals, because it provides a gateway to identification theft.
But had the authorities decided to use our other unique identifier – the National Health Service number we are given when we are born or when we register with the NHS – this would have been less of a potential problem. Stealing that number might get you a hip replacement but there’s much less potential for monetary fraud. So now, we are getting the wrong fix to the wrong problem, which incidentally potentially exists within officialdom as much as within political parties.
In any event, we already have laws in place to protect against such fraud: using them more effectively to capture the tiny minority of political campaigners who abuse the system would provide more of a deterrent.
I’m not sure people in the Missing Million were asked for their opinions in the Electoral Commission’s research. But the conclusions drawn and the measures proposed also suggest an attempt by the establishment to pull up the drawbridge on those who, for the first time ever, managed to breach fortress entitlement through the participation process.
Until and unless we invest far more resources than we do currently in citizenship at the earliest age – primary, not secondary school – and in voter registration and education, and at the same time, simplify the process with plain language and procedures, then these proposals take us back, not forward. The Million will become missing once more, which might be in their interests, but it certainly isn’t in ours.
The Referendum has effected change that we cannot allow to be unmade and attempts like this to do so must be resisted strenuously. So, here’s something for the 45% to focus its pent up energy and enthusiasm on. It might not galvanise quite as much as a rally with flag waving or a tub thumping speech made from a platform, but then it might also just have some practical effect.
The Electoral Commission’s consultation runs until Monday 20 October. Please respond.