Hundreds of students across Oxford have yet to register their vote for the next general election in May 2015, following a change to the electoral registration system.
At the end of last summer the responsibility for registering voters changed. Previously the “head of the household” had to register voters but now individual voters have to register themselves. The change to the electoral registration system was initiated by plans bought in under the Labour government, and has now been implemented by the coalition.
Within Oxford University, the college a student attends acted as the “head of the household”. Under the old system, the college would register all first year students who would be 18 and over at the time of the upcoming elections. This typically ensured almost 100% registration of students.
There has been a significant decrease in the number of registered voters in all wards across Oxford since the implementation of the new system, though the fall in the number of registered voters is noticeably higher in those Oxford wards which house a high percentage of students.
The ward with the greatest decline in Oxford was Holywell, with a 59.25% drop in the number of registered voters, according to a comparison of the electoral register between February 2014 and the 2015 register (published in December 2014). Holywell is also the ward with the greatest percentage of students.
A spokesperson from the Oxford City Council told Cherwell, “We have made significant efforts to raise levels of student awareness of the change in the electoral registration system, working with student administration, college bursars and OUSU.
“This has included: a flyer sent by student administration to all students in their joining packs; a stand at Freshers’ Fair; posters across the colleges and University; an individual ‘Invitation to Register’ (ITR) form sent to every student in student accommodation, and reminders to students in residence from many college bursars.”
The spokesperson gave several reasons as to why students have failed to register, remarking, “Students have to make the time and effort to return the form or go online and register.
“Also, there are additional requirements that prospective voters now need to meet. A National Insurance Number (NINO) is now required for registration, and if details provided on the application to register do not match records held by the DWP the application is rejected and we have to ask for additional evidence, usually a copy of [the applicant’s] passport. Overseas students who are eligible to vote in the UK may not have a NINO and so will have to go through the additional evidence route.
“Everyone who is eligible to vote and resident in the UK is required to be on an electoral register. Students can be on the register at their home and term-time addresses, but they don’t have to be on both.
“We are encouraging students to register at both, but cannot require it. By being registered in Oxford and at ‘home’ they can vote in local elections in both places and would have a choice of where to vote in national elections. Some students are returning their ITR on which they are choosing not to register in Oxford.
“The student vote is important in Oxford because there are some wards in Oxford where the majority of electors are students and others where there is a significant minority. If they do not register they are effectively ‘invisible’.”
As Merton College JCR Vice President, Laura Clarke, who has registered her vote, explained, “Despite the short process involved in registering, it is quite a pain as most people don’t know their national insurance number – I had to contact my parents at home so they could find it. If college were to register students then I think many more students would actually vote”. Clarke added that it is important to register to vote, as “a large proportion of the Oxford constituencies consists of students, so it is important that our opinions are heard.”
OUSU has been working with the Oxford City Council to raise awareness about the change in the electoral registration system, following a meeting held in September to co-ordinate council actions. OUSU has included the ‘Register to Vote’ message and link in an email to all students.
Brookes Student Union is making student registration a core campaign for 2014-2015, and is supporting online registration alongside the NUS Extra sign-up.
Undergraduate Brendan Kjellburg-Motten, who has not registered to vote, spoke to Cherwell about the change to the electoral registration system, commenting, “I think it’s a bit dodgy, especially the way it was phrased in the letter – [the new system] ‘means that you can vote in elections’ (as though we couldn’t before), immediately followed by the threat of a fine. However I’m not familiar with what the system was before as I wasn’t old enough [to vote]. I didn’t actually read the letter until long after the deadline.”
The Oxford City Council spokesperson continued, “We hope to encourage more registration next term so that everyone who wants to vote in Oxford in the General Election in May is able to do so.”