I’ve just found out that the Ministry of Justice is opening a public consultation on the Edited Electoral Register; this is a seemingly rare opportunity to actually effect some change on the way our data is handled by the government.
The consultation is looking at reforming the register, with a range of options from just educating the public more on its existence to abolishing it as soon as possible. For those of you who don’t know, when you register to vote (or, as the case seems to be in university halls of residence, are involuntarily registered), your name is added to two registers – the full one and the edited one. The full one is for government use and credit checks, and contains your DOB and personal voting information as well as name and address. The edited one is available to anyone at all who just wishes to buy yours mailing information, with no stipulations on what they do with it.
The edited register is problematic for me for a number of reasons…
Crucially, you’re added into edited register unless you specify otherwise. Most people don’t even know it exists; let alone how to de-register themselves. On a side note, Dan Ariely (smart behavioural psychologist) has an interesting section in his Ted Talk on opting in and out of things. [skip to 5 minutes]
It’s probably fair to say that though opting in and out is a free individual choice, the ‘opt out’ system for the register works psychologically in the favour of companies who want to market to us, and not ours.
Secondly, it compromises the democratic process if information gathered from citizens registering to vote can then be sold to anyone for any purpose. There is scant profit made by electoral offices that hold and administrate information – an expensive task, yet the companies and individuals purchasing the ‘cheap’ information invariably do so for personal financial gain. Thus the argument could be made that public funds are being used to aid private profit. Sounds familiar anyone?
To paraphrase from my own response to the consultation,
The large majority of mail received as a result is not useful in helping inform product choices; and if it is, it is purely to the detriment of the company in question in light of their scant regard for privacy, selective advertising or sustainability. In the past as a result of having been on the edited electoral register, I’ve received marketing materials for products that I have no interest in (car insurance when no car is owned, pet insurance as above, newspaper subscriptions for newspapers I would never consider buying, and so on).
It concerns me that in my experience the majority use for the Electoral Register is by financial services companies; given the well-documented levels of public and personal debt, perhaps it is wiser that people are not persistently offered easily-accessible credit via their doormat.
I also have reservations about the sustainability of such mailings – though many have ‘please recycle’ symbols printed upon them, I can’t help but think that it would reduce the UK’s carbon footprint considerably if companies weren’t to create two separate wasteful processes (creation and recycling) and then put the onus on involuntary recipients of their mailings to dispose of their waste responsibly. I’d much prefer that people were able to choose their inclusion, to limit this resource-intensive and not-particularly-useful business activity.
Anyway, this public consultation opened yesterday, and runs until February, so if anyone has any views on reforming the register and data privacy, speak now or forever hold your peace.
The consultation and information on the reform options are available here.