Imagine not having the right to vote in your own country. Whilst this may seem like a situation from the dim distant past, you don’t have to go far back in British history to reach a time when if you were poor or a woman, you had no say over who was elected in parliament.
Fortunately, as a modern British citizen, this is no longer the case – you can vote as long as you're over the age of 18, not in prison and haven't been found guilty of breaking any election laws in the last five years.
One thing that you must do, however, is make sure that you're on the electoral roll. This is a record of everyone in Britain who is eligible to vote, and its introduction marked an important turning point in British history. From the days where you simply had to turn up at hustings to vote, to the present online, yearly record, we consider the changing face of voting in Britain.
The origins of Electoral Registers
The origin of electoral registers can be traced back to 1696, and an act of Parliament designed to prevent arguments surrounding election results and fraud. To combat the problem, sheriffs began to make lists of voters and the candidates they voted for, which were then published as poll books. This system continued to be used into the 19th century but only recorded those who had actually cast a vote.
The Days of Hustings
In the early 19th century things were rather different to today's Britain, when it came to who was eligible to vote and how they could register. An extremely limited number of people, most of whom were in positions of power, had the right to vote.
Where you lived could also affect your voting rights, with small local boroughs able to elect more MPs than larger towns and cities.
Whilst land tax lists were sometimes used in place of electoral rolls, not all qualified voters paid land tax and the system was easily open to corruption and abuse. Those who believed they were eligible to vote would simply turn up at gatherings known as husting, which involved a temporary platform or pavilion being erected, where voters would gather to hear the speeches of candidates. They would then indicate their desired winner, sometimes in as informal a manner as a show of hands.
1832 and the Beginnings of the Electoral Register In 1832 Parliament issued a Reform Act which formed the basis for the electoral register we know today. With the aim to make the system fairer, the act got rid of some of the regional differences in the electoral system.
In the counties, this included tasking the overseers of the poor in each parish with compiling an electoral register. On a set date each year they would post a notice asking potential voters to come forwards and prove their eligibility. If they were successful they would be relisted every year unless their circumstances changed.
Whilst these systems were a step in the right direction and less open to fraud and corruption, there were still only a very small percentage of British men who were eligible to vote.
Throughout the 1830s there was growing pressure for electoral change. The Representation of the People Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 increasingly gave the right to vote to more and more of the male population. However, it wasn't until 1918 that all males aged over 21 were given the vote, and not until 1928 that the same rule was applied to women. Since registration to vote became required in 1832, the electoral register has been published annually with the exception of the latter years of World War 1 and 2. Whilst initially they included only middle class men, as the eligibility to vote opened up, more and more people were registered, and by 1928 everyone over the age of 21 was included.
In the early twentieth century, responsibility for compiling the registers was taken away from the overseers of the poor and given to local authorities.
The Electoral Roll Today
In 1969 the voting age was lowered to 18, and today you can simply fill out the form online, print it off and send it to your local electoral registration office.
The register is published on the 1st December each year, and electoral registration forms are sent to homeowners between July and November.
There are two versions of the electoral register:
- The full register – used only for elections, preventing and detecting crime and checking applications for loans or credit
- The edited register – available for general sale and can be opted out of
Electoral Registers Online
Online electoral registers have numerous benefits, allowing the general public to access a huge wealth of information. Recent electoral registers can be used to track down and reconnect with people you have lost touch with, whereas historic electoral registers can be accessed in order to find out more about your ancestry.
In the future there will be continuing reforms in the registration process, in an attempt to combat fraud and improve confidence in the electoral register.
Announced in 2009, Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is a big development that will commence in summer 2014. Currently one person in every household is responsible for registering everyone at that address, but IER will mean that each person has to register individually.
The new process will require prospective voters to provide 'identifying information' such as date of birth and national insurance number, and this information will need to be verified in order for them to be included on the register. It will also be the first time that it's possible to apply entirely online.
It's estimated that 35 million voters can be transferred to the new register automatically by matching the existing electoral register against the department for work and pensions database, with those who don't match being invited to reapply.
Voting in Britain has had a turbulent history, and has come a long way since the days of prospective voters simply showing up at hustings. The widening of the vote to include all adults over the age of 18 regardless of wealth and gender, and the increasing use of official electoral registers to prevent fraud and corruption has led to the democratic society we know today.
The next chance you'll have to make a difference with your vote will be the European Parliamentary Elections 2014 and Local Council Elections 2014 – make sure you're registered to vote by contacting your local electoral registration office.