Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 24 Jun 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms F complained the Council did not add her to the Electoral Register, causing her to lose her right to vote in the 2019 general election. The Ombudsman has found no fault.
- Ms F complained the Council did not add her to the Electoral Register, causing her to lose her right to vote in the 2019 general election.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information Ms F sent, the Council’s response to our enquiries and:
- The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001
- The Electoral Commission’s Guidance “Maintaining the register throughout the year”
What I found
The Electoral Register
- To vote in an election a person must be on the electoral register (or roll). People can apply to the electoral registration officer in the local authority area where they live at any time throughout the year to register to vote or to change their address on the electoral register. To vote in a specific election there will be a deadline by which the person must have registered.
- There are two versions of the electoral register: the full version and the open register.
- The full version of the electoral register contains everyone's name and address but is used only for elections, preventing and detecting crime, checking applications for loans or credit, and jury summoning.
- The open register is the version that is available to anyone who wants to buy a copy. Individuals can “opt out” of having their name and address included on the open register.
- People may also register to vote anonymously if, for example, they are concerned about their safety. This means their details will not appear on either version of the electoral register. To register anonymously, applicants must print the form and have it attested or provide evidence to support the request.
Applications to be on the electoral register
- The council’s electoral registration officer is responsible for the compilation of the electoral register. In 2014 the Government introduced individual electoral registration and now requires all individuals to provide their full name, address, date of birth, nationality and national insurance number. Prior to this, registration only required a name and an address which could be provided by anyone.
- If any of the information is not provided, councils must send the person up to three invitation to register forms and make a personal visit. If there is insufficient information to allow the application to succeed after taking these steps, the registration officer must disallow the application.
- Refusal to include someone on the electoral roll may be appealed to the registration officer. If this is unsuccessful then there is a right to appeal to the County Court. This means complaints about refusal to add a person to the electoral register are outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction, because the law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended). However, we may consider some complaints about the administration of the system.
Household enquiry forms
- To maintain the register and keep it updated, councils carry out an annal survey by issuing Household Enquiry Forms (HEFs). If a HEF is not returned, further forms are issued and a canvasser follows up by a visit.
- The HEF is not an electoral registration form. A completed HEF does not register a person, but it identifies who lives at a property to enable the council to send out invitation to register forms for the resident to complete and return.
- On 19 November 2019 Ms F completed and returned a HEF for her address, she wrote on the form "not on electoral register". Two days later Ms F emailed the Council asking for information on how to register to vote in the general election. She said she did not want her name to be put on the electoral register.
- The Council replied advising Ms F that her details would need to appear on the register, but that she could ask for her details to not appear on the open register. The Council also said in certain circumstances she could apply to appear as an anonymous elector. It provided the link to the relevant guidance and registration form. The Council said the deadline for registration was midnight on 26 November 2019.
- Ms F replied that requesting personal information was an invasion of data protection and a breach of her human rights. She was concerned there was an identity fraud risk and said she was not prepared to answer the questions for the Council to make money from her personal information. The Council repeated its advice, attached a form for Ms F to print and complete, and offered to post the registration form to Ms F by first class. Ms F responded that the request to provide information was "unlawful".
- On 29 November 2019 Ms F called the Council. She said she had registered to vote but had not received a voting card. The officer said the Council had received the completed HEF on 28 November 2019, but not the electoral registration form, which it had needed to have by 26 November 2019 for Ms F to be able to vote on 12 December.
Ms F’s complaint
- Ms F complained on 29 November 2019. She said she had been permitted to vote on all other occasions and her details were on the register. She had completed and returned all the necessary forms as requested within the timescales. She considered the Council had deliberately discriminated against her to prevent her being able to vote.
- The Council replied the next day. It did not uphold her complaint. It said officers had clearly explained the process, including the option to opt out of the open register, and had provided the necessary forms. It found no evidence of discrimination.
- Ms F remained dissatisfied. She said she had returned the form and the council tax records would show she had been paying council tax for the property and was registered on the “unpublic” electoral register.
- The Council sent a further response to Ms F’s complaint on 2 December 2019. It said Ms F had been registered to vote at her address until 2017. In 2018, three HEFs were issued to the property and a canvasser visited, but no HEFs were returned. In 2019 three HEFs were issued and a canvasser visited twice but was not able to contact anyone at the property. The canvasser left a pink slip stating they had called. Ms F had turned this slip to the Council, but this was not a HEF, nor an electoral registration form.
- A HEF final reminder was posted on 28 October 2019. Ms F had completed this and signed and dated it 19 November, but it had not been received by the Council until 28 November 2019. The Council sent Ms F an invitation to register form in the post on 6 December 2019.
- The Council said the council tax database was completely and legally separate from the electoral register. Many people must pay council tax, but do not need to be on the electoral register because, for example, they are registered elsewhere, or they are non-UK/non-EU citizens.
- Ms F complained to the Ombudsman. She said she had previously been registered, so the Council was aware she lived at the property. She had spoken to a Council officer on the phone who had confirmed she had received Ms F’s completed form. Ms F said she had previously complained in February 2019, but the Council had ignored this.
- In response to our enquiries, the Council said it had no record of a February 2019 complaint. As I have seen no evidence of it, I have investigated Ms F’s complaint of November 2019 which she has brought to the Ombudsman.
- I have carefully considered whether Ms F could have appealed to the registration officer and County Court about a refusal to include her on the register. The Electoral Commission’s Guidance says a right of appeal exists when, despite all requests being undertaken, there is still not adequate information to register a person. In these circumstances the registration officer may refuse to add the person to the register, and it is that decision that can be appealed.
- However, this does not apply in Ms F's case because she had not returned a completed invitation to register form and had refused to provide the required personal information. There was therefore no application to refuse and no appeal right.
- I have therefore gone on to consider whether there was any fault in the Council’s actions. The Council says an officer confirmed with Ms F on the phone that it had received Ms F's completed HEF.
- A HEF is not the same as a completed application to be included on the electoral register. I have seen no evidence Ms F returned a completed electoral registration form by the deadline of 26 November 2019. It was therefore not fault for the Council to not add her to the electoral register.
- I appreciate Ms F’s concerns about data privacy. The Government has addressed these by allowing people to opt out of the open register or to register as anonymous electors. The law requires that to be included on the electoral roll individuals must provide personal information. It was therefore not unlawful or maladministration for the Council to ask for this information. If Ms F wishes to be on the electoral register, she will need to provide it.
- There was no fault. I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman