An estimated 800,000 people have dropped off the electoral register since the government introduced changes to the system, with students in university towns at highest risk of being disenfranchised, the Guardian has learned.
Labour says it fears that the missing sections of the electorate are predominantly its supporters after the government moved from registration of electors by household to asking individuals to sign up, citing fears of fraud and error.
The estimated number of voters registered in December – the first figure under the new individual electoral registration system – is lower than in the previous year, with just months to go before May’s local, assembly and mayoral elections.
Overall 1.8% of voters are estimated to have dropped off the register across the population and figures compiled by the Labour party found the register had shrunk more dramatically in areas with a high population of students, such as Canterbury, which has seen a 13% drop, and Cambridge and Dundee West, both with an 11% fall.
Gloria De Piero, the shadow minister for electoral registration, said the data revealed an alarming reduction in students on the register, which is likely to raise fears that election results could be swayed by missing blocks of like-minded voters.
With the national voter registration drive starting today, De Piero has written to John Penrose, a Cabinet Office minister, to call for all universities to offer registration for students when they enrol.
“The transition to individual electoral registration (IER) has resulted in a significant fall in the number of people on the electoral register in areas with a university,” she said.
“As you will know, IER prevents universities from block registering all their students in halls of residence, but measures should be taken to ensure that it is as easy as possible for individual students to register.
“The University of Sheffield has seen outstanding results by integrating voter registration into the enrolment process … I write to you today to call for official guidance to be issued to every vice-chancellor in the country about how they can adopt the Sheffield model in their universities for next year’s enrolment.”
She said warnings from Labour and the Electoral Commission about a fall in student registration had so far been ignored but it was not too late to put it right.
Speaking in the Commons, Penrose has said he sympathises with Labour concerns but it is “not quite that simple”. Several methods of encouraging students to register were being tested across the country with promising results, he told MPs.
People can register until about three weeks before the next elections but the December list is also important because the government is planning to base any forthcoming boundary changes on its figures, which Labour fears could potentially skew the result of the review in favour of Conservative-held areas.
The government moved from registration of electors by household to asking individuals to sign up in a drive to increase the accuracy of the list and eliminate fraud and error. The vast majority of people have been transferred automatically from the old to the new list but around one in 10 have not. New voters must sign up as individuals from now on.
In the run-up to the transfer, the Electoral Commission raised concerns about the speed of the change and the risk of up to 1.9 million people falling off the register without a concerted publicity drive. Labour warned that about 1 million could drop off the list. Since then, the government and third parties have embarked on voter registration drives.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said individual registration was essential to tackle fraud. “We have worked hard with local authorities for years now to clean up the register – any entries removed will be people who have moved house, died or never existed because they were registered fraudulently,” she said.
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