A UK-WIDE overhaul of the system for registering people on the electoral roll will create “confusion” among voters ahead of the independence referendum and should be delayed in Scotland, according to election chiefs.
The referendum is already proving a challenge for officials, with 16- and 17-year-olds being handed the right to vote for the first time in a national ballot and having to be registered.
Experts fear the introduction of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill at Westminster could create additional problems ahead of the independence vote in 2014.
The bill includes a new system for getting on to the electoral roll – Individual Electoral Registration (IER) – which is due to take effect in July 2014, a few months before the referendum.
Although it will not be used for that vote, Brian Byrne, chair of the electoral registration committee at the Scottish Assessors Association, told MSPs the introduction of the new system as the plebiscite looms was a serious problem.
He said: “There’s a colossal amount of work and there’s also a potential for confusing some of the electors. Two totally separate things are happening at the same time – individual registration and creating a register for the referendum under two different sets of rules.”
It would mean voters being contacted about the new registration system and about the referendum under the current set-up. “It would be preferable from our point of view if the implementation of individual registration was delayed until after the referendum, but that might depend on a relatively early date for the referendum,” Mr Byrne told Holyrood’s referendum bill committee.
The Scottish Government is holding talks with the UK Cabinet Office to try to resolve the problem.
Mr Byrne said there was an acceptance among Cabinet Office staff that the looming referendum created a particular problem in Scotland, and he added that officials had been “responsive” to the issues north of the Border.
Joan Hewton, assessor and electoral registration officer for Lothian, said the problem would be having a “gap” in the middle of the individual registration process, with implementation due to start on 1 July and finish on 1 December. “The difficulty is stopping in the middle to prepare for a six-week period with the referendum,” she said.
It would difficult to introduce the changes sooner because of the European elections in June 2014, leaving only a “very small window”.
She said: “Whether individual registration will be actually delayed to allow the referendum to take place all depends on when the referendum date is set as to what the UK government might allow us to do with regard to delaying the onset of the IER.”
First Minister Alex Salmond has said the date of the vote will be revealed when the Referendum Bill is published in March. Recent reports, quoting government sources, have named the date as Saturday, 18 October, 2014.
The change to the registration system is being introduced to tackle fraud, ending the system whereby the head of household could simply register everyone in a property.
The final register for the referendum is likely to be set out 11 days beforehand, Mr Byrne said.
Former Tory leader Annabel Goldie told MSPs: “If we overlay this new bill and we anticipate its coming into effect in July 2014, that seems to me to be a colossal amount of work to accomplish in Scotland.”
A government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government is working with the UK Cabinet Office and electoral administrators in Scotland to identify and manage any implications the introduction of individual electoral administration might have for the referendum.”
The proposed new system means the annual three-month canvass to compile the latest electoral register, which usually starts in September, will be delayed this year.
It may be as late as next January before it gets under way, although Mr Byrne said this might be advantage in compiling the most up-to-date register, particularly with 16- and 17-year-olds on it this time around.
Many 15-year-olds will have to be registered in advance, as they will turn 16 before the referendum is held, he said.
But no problems are anticipated because youngsters aged 15 and 16 are “not so mobile” as older teenagers.
“In Scotland we have good access to school records, so we’re pretty confident we have good information,” Mr Byrne said.
Under the new system, it’s envisaged that, by 2015, each individual on the electoral register will be verified against a Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) database.
The first stage of that will see the register from July 2014 matched against the DWP database. Anybody who matches on that will be confirmed as registered, but anyone who doesn’t will have to go through the process of applying to register.