Government measures to encourage eight million eligible UK voters to join the electoral register were prompted by research, and helped boost voter registrations by two million in the run-up to the 2016 EU Referendum.

Impacts

  • Dr Toby James co-authored the report Getting the missing millions back on the electoral register (2016), which had two recommendations adopted by government: an amendment to the Higher Education Act 2017 placing the onus on colleges and universities to register students when they enrol, and the July 2018 launch of the annual National Democracy Week to foster greater democratic participation.
  • Dr James co-founded the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation with campaigning group Bite the Ballot in 2015, focusing policy debate on voter engagement.
  • A reform agenda has now also been launched by the Scottish and Welsh governments to modernise elections, following reform lobbying by Dr James and Bite the Ballot in Wales and research evidence presented to the Scottish Parliament.
  • Through extensive media and voter outreach work, Dr James, in collaboration with Bite the Ballot, raised awareness of the voting registration deadline prior to the EU Referendum. Traffic on the registration website peaked following Dr James’ appearance on BBC News at Ten on the eve of the deadline. Over 600,000 voters submitted registrations on the final day – over a quarter of a million of these were under 25.
  • His recommendations to a 2014 Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee Inquiry into voter engagement prompted the government to trial automatic electoral re-registration, which is estimated to save up to £1.7 million per year. This work was also cited by the 2015 Labour Party in its manifesto promise to ensure millions were not left unregistered.
  • Dr James founded Electoralmanagement.com, currently accessed by users from 146 countries, to make the latest scientific research, policy advice and news about running elections accessible for practitioners, researchers and students.
  • The research has also shaped international best practices in elections. Findings led to delegates at the 2017 International conference on democratic elections – representing about 40 countries, international institutions and electoral commissions – passing resolutions to improve recruitment practices, workplace conditions, gender equality and resourcing in electoral management bodies around the world.

"The Missing Millions report will go down in history as helping to evolve the UK's electoral registration system." (Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution 2016-2018)

"Dr Toby James' research has played a vital role in evidencing the funding pressures facing electoral services and advocating for a more modern electoral registration system." (Cat Smith MP, Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs)

About the research

"An estimated eight million people in the UK may not be able to vote because their details on the electoral register are incorrect or they are not registered. A surprising number of people assume they are on the electoral register because they pay council tax and use other government services," says Dr Toby James. His research into management of the UK electoral process and administration also discovered that registration rates were set to plummet amongst young people and students as a result of government reforms.

"The ease or otherwise of the voting process makes a difference to whether people vote or not," Dr James points out. The decision to replace household electoral registration with individual registration in Britain from 2014 made voting even less convenient, particularly for students and young people. A total of 1.4 million names disappeared from the register following the change, and registrations among attainers (the next generation of voters, 14-17 year olds) was almost halved – from 471,295 to 281,535.

Over the past decade Dr James has worked to draw attention to how the electoral process can be improved. A more inclusive democracy, he says, requires long-term remedies – such as improved funding for electoral officials, a single national electoral register to replace the current patchwork of nearly 400 local registers, a national website for citizens to check their registration status online, and prompts to register when accessing other government services such as renewing car or council tax.

"The ultimate goal has to be a system of automatic registration," he says. "We need to make voter registration more of a routine activity that fits with citizens' everyday lives, rather than rely on the crazy last minute pre-election rush that we have now."