02 September 2013


Big Brother Watch in the UK has released a report on Democratic value: Exposing the scale of the commercial sale of the edited electoral roll [PDF].

The report explains the difference between the Edited and Full Electoral Register:
The electoral register is the list of everyone who is registered to vote in a local area. There are two versions of the register – the full version, and the edited version. Individuals’ details will appear on the full version of the register, but you can choose to have your details excluded from the edited version when registering. The full register is used for elections, preventing and detecting crime, and checking applications for credit. The edited register is available for general sale and can be used for commercial activities such as marketing. 
The Edited Elector Register was introduced in 2002. Since then it has become clear it serves little purpose for the general public, several organisations have called for it to be abolished and millions of people have sought to opt-out of the system. The financial amounts involved for the 307 councils who have sold their EER is not a vital revenue stream (revenue was £256k across all 307 authorities) while the role undermines trust in the electoral register, makes it less attractive to register to vote and creates additional paperwork for electoral staff. 
We believe the EER should be abolished. This is a view shared by the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Local Government Association. .... 
Since the Edited Electoral Register (EER) was introduced in 2002 it has been a controversial addition to the Electoral Register (ER). Unlike the Full Electoral Register (FER), which is used for electoral, credit reference and other limited purposes, anyone can buy the EER. It is this indiscriminate availability that has led to derision of the register by industry bodies, MP’s and the electorate. For those who believe that the EER should be abolished, it is the general belief that the fact that it is used for purposes other than elections acts as a dis-benefit and disincentive to person’s wishing to register as an elector. As a consequence, this leads to a lack of accuracy and completeness in the register and inhibits with the democratic process. A recent survey carried out by the Local Government Association and the Association of Electoral Administrators found that almost nine in ten electoral officers surveyed believed that the practice of selling the electoral register discouraged people from registering to vote.  Persons that have failed to register have cited not wanting to receive junk mail, personal security, and identity fraud fears, among others as being reasons for not registering. From this there is little doubt that if the ER was for exclusively electoral purposes, more people would register. Very limited public opinion research is available, but a MORI survey carried out for the Electoral Commission in 2003 found 79% of people were unaware of the provision allowing people to opt-out of the edited version when they register to vote. n addition, a qualitative research study from 2004/05 found that the level of awareness of the difference between the FER and the EER was low.
The report features the following findings regarding the period from 1 May 2007 to 1 May 2012 -
  • At least 307 councils have sold information from the edited register over the five years covered by the report 
  • There have been at least 2,742 sales of the edited register over the five years 
  • Sale of the edited register amounted to at least £265,161.21. 
  • The council with the most buyers was Westminster, which sold it 93 times 
  • Four councils sold the edited register to more than 50 buyers 
  • 19 councils sold the edited register to between 25 and 49 buyers o
  • Very few people are aware they are able to permanently opt-out of the edited register. For example, 66,747 people (47.02%) chose to opt-out in Westminster in 2012, but none have chosen to do so permanently. 
Big Brother Watch comments that
The sale of personal information by public authorities, particularly for marketing purposes, is something that should never be routine. It undermines trust and confidence in the wider public sector’s ability to protect people’s privacy and potentially deters people from engaging in a critical part of our democracy. 
If the EER is to be retained, at the very minimum, the Cabinet Office should allow councils to include a permanent opt-out option on the electoral registration form, something currently not possible due to statutory provisions and the threat of legal action against councils doing so without a prior statutory change. 
Some councils, for example York, are trying to take steps to make it easier to exercise the permanent opt out and they should be applauded for these efforts. However they are forced to pursue this contrived effort because of the limits of existing legislation. Reform of this legislation should be a priority if the edited roll is to remain.
It consequently offers the following recommendations
  • The edited register should be abolished.We wholly agree with the Electoral Commission, the Local Government Association and The Association of Electoral Administrators that the edited register should be abolished. We believe that the existence of the edited register impacts on election participation as people are concerned about their personal information being shared for marketing purposes and undermining trust in the electoral registration system.
  • If the edited register is to remain, it should either be opt-in or at a minimum councils should be able to offer the permanent opt-out on registration forms. Polling shows 79% of people are unaware that they were able to opt-out of the EER. This is also reflected in the evidence that councils with more than 50,000 people opting out on an annual basis rarely see anyone opting out permanently. However, as this would require legislative change, an interim solution would be for the Electoral Commission to issue new guidance making clear councils can and should inform electors of the Section 11 permanent opt-out.
It suggests that
The Individual Electoral Registration (IER), will give people more control over whether to remain on the EER. Presently, whoever fills out the registration has control. The IER will allow voters to individually choose from themselves whether they want Electoral Registration Officers (ERO) to be able to sell their information to third parties in the form of the EER. ERO’s have a big part to play in the promotion of transparent and fair electoral practices, including the sharing of voter’s information. It should be every ERO’s responsibility to ensure that balances, consistent guidance is produced and issued to voters before they make the decision as to whether to be added or remain on the EER. The fact that voters have to re-state their choice every year and are not asked if they would like to permanently opt-out only undermines the ability of voters to exercise control over their personal information.