Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has called for an “urgent investigation” into a website set up by the Vote Leave campaign that appeared when people searched for information on how to register to vote.
The advertised link, which appeared above the official government site, asked individuals to fill in personal information, including email and address, and then click on a “register to vote” button.
However, the action did not actually sign people up to vote, but simply provided their details to the out campaign and then redirected to a second page with further information.
In a letter to the Electoral Commission, Morgan and the Labour MP Stella Creasy, accused their opponents of manipulating online listings and of “underhand tactics that could disenfranchise citizens” who were trying to register in good faith.
“It has come to our attention that Vote Leave appear to have paid for online advertising to ensure that their campaign website regarding registration is promoted ahead of the government website that directly enables citizens to register to vote,” they wrote.
“The Vote Leave campaign site presents users with a form to fill in their contact details and then click on a button which clearly says ‘Register to Vote’. This website, however, does not enable people to register, and therefore could easily mislead people in to thinking that they have secured their ballot paper,” they added before the website ad appeared to have been taken down on Monday.
An Electoral Commission spokeswoman said it was not within the remit of her organisation to “regulate the content of campaigner websites”. She encouraged people to remember that registration closes at midnight on Tuesday and only takes a few minutes.
Vote Leave did not respond to questions about the link.
Discovery of the Vote Leave registration advert came as data journalists at Euronews found that more than 50,000 young people applied to register to vote in the past weekend alone, with another surge expected on Tuesday.
The figures suggest that young voters have responded to a campaign to sign them up, with over one in four of the 2 million people registering since the start of May being under 25, according to data available on the gov.uk website.
The news will come as some relief to the remain camp, as pollsters believe young people are more likely to vote to stay in the EU. Young people are twice as likely to vote to remain in the EU, but under-25s are only half as likely to vote at all as over-65s.
Despite the Tories’ attractiveness to older voters, David Cameron has made a personal plea to younger people to turn out, calling the referendum a “vote for their lifetimes”. He and other remain campaigners have tried to impress on Britain’s millennials just how important the referendum is to their future prospects, with polls suggesting they are most concerned about jobs.
According to YouGov, 45% of 18 to 24-year-olds said employment was the key issue of the referendum, while only 8% said immigration was their main concern.
Activists, however, are concerned younger voters will not turn out, despite the fact that they will, arguably, be most affected by the outcome. Almost 30% of under-25s are not registered to vote, making them half as likely to be on the electoral register as members of the population at large.
Politicians, particularly those on the remain side, have been scrambling to engage younger voters and campaigns to to do so have stepped up a gear this week. Tinder, the dating app on which 85% of users are aged 18 to 34, is running Swipe the Vote, where users can choose whether statements about the EU are true or false. They are also offered a link to learn more about both sides and to register to vote. The taxi app Uber will send its users pop-up adverts to encourage them to register.
The youth voter movements Bite the Ballot and Hope Not Hate are running a series of initiatives across the country, including registration drives, a leaders’ live debate on Facebook and popup “democracy cafes” in Starbucks outlets.
In Chrisp Street, east London, between market street stalls piled high with plastic bowls of tomatoes and rails of sequinned dresses, six activists have been chasing after young shoppers in recent days, waving blue and yellow-starred leaflets.
“People always think I’m selling something,” said Udoka Maya Okonkwo, a 19-year-old student, in her blackand pink slogan T-shirt. “I’m selling democracy, that’s what I should say to them.”
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Monday 6th June 2016 20.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010