The Government could abolish the edited electoral roll which organisations can buy from local authorities and use for any purpose. It is consulting on the issue after a review of Government data handling recommended that it be scrapped.
The review, carried out last year by then Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and Dr Mark Walport, said that the edited register should not be sold and should be abolished.
The Government has now laid out six options ranging from the immediate abolition of the register to doing nothing more than increase public awareness of it, and has requested responses to its consultation.
One of the options is to abolish the register immediately, another is to commit to doing so in the future. The future abolition would happen either after a fixed time period or after a certain percentage of the population had opted out of inclusion in it.
The voter registration form includes a box that can be ticked to opt a voter out of appearing on the 'edited' roll. Before 2002 companies could buy the full electoral register. Since 2002, though, they have only been able to buy the edited version. This contains only the names and addresses of those who have not opted out of it.
The review conducted by Walport and Thomas concluded that data collected for electoral purposes should only be used for those purposes.
"Selling the edited register is an unsatisfactory way for local authorities to treat personal information," it said. "It sends a particularly poor message to the public that personal information collected for something as vital as participation in the democratic process can be sold to ‘anyone for any purpose’. And there is a belief that the sale of the electoral register deters some people from registering at all."
The Government said that it had yet to be convinced that this was the best course of action.
"Whilst the Government is sympathetic to the arguments … that data collected for electoral purposes should only be used for electoral purposes, feedback from others suggests that the abolition of the Edited Register may have an impact on the economy and on wider society," it said.
The six options it has proposed are:
* abolish the Edited Register as soon as practicable;
* set a timescale or ‘trigger point’ for abolition of the Edited Register;
* abolish the Edited Register as soon as practicable, but extend access to the Full Register for other purposes to be decided in light of the consultation;
* retain the Edited Register, but impose restrictions in legislation on who can purchase it and for what purposes;
* replace the current ‘opt out’ provision with an ‘opt in’; or
* improve guidance for the public about the Edited Register.
The Government stressed that the issue to be decided was who could use the electoral register. It was not, it said, a question of the register being made private or secret.
"Since its introduction in the nineteenth century the electoral register has always been a public document," said its consultation document. "A public register of electors is an important safeguard against potential abuses of the electoral system. The primary purpose behind its public accessibility is to allow members of the public and political parties to check the register to ensure that all eligible people who have applied to appear on the register have been included, that details are accurate and that names of ineligible people have not."
The Government's consultation identified benefits and problems with each of the six options. It said that abolishing the edited register immediately would not give organisations enough time to adapt, but that the setting of a 'trigger point' of opt outs would also undermine organisations' abilities to plan effectively.
It said that while the national opt out rate is 40 per cent and rising, it varies from region to region from 20 per cent to 70 per cent.
Abolishing the edited register and allowing the full electoral roll to be used for some commercial activity would in some cases result in even more data being used for commerce, while retaining the register but restricting access to it would pose problems of deciding and regulating who should qualify for access to it, the consultation said.
It said that while making the edited register 'opt in' rather than 'opt out' would better protect privacy and reduce the number of people who appear on the edited register without knowing that they do or understanding the implications of that, it would also drastically reduce the usefulness of the edited register by reducing the number of people on it.
The consultation said that the Government might allow the edited register to continue, but increase public awareness of it and the implications of being on it. It said that this would solve the problem of a low public awareness of the register but would not solve the apparent problem that some people do not register to vote at all because a version of the electoral roll is sold.
The consultation closes on 23 February next year.
See: The consultation (50-page/226KB PDF)
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