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The electoral register is a list of names and addresses of everyone who is registered to vote. This briefing paper sets out the rules on access to the electoral register, including the marked registers. It also sets out the background to the introduction of the open register.

There are two versions of the electoral register:

  • the full register; and
  • the open register, also known as the edited register.

Electoral registers are maintained locally by electoral registration officers (EROs) in your local authority. Voting is voluntary but you must respond to requests for information from an ERO. You cannot object to the use of your name or home address for the purpose of maintaining the electoral register.

The full register

The full register contains the names and addresses of everyone who is registered to vote.

Any member of the public may inspect the full register under supervision. They cannot make any copies or use the information for marketing, but they may make handwritten notes.

There are strict rules on who has access to the full register and on what use can be made of the data contained within it. These are set out in legislation and a breach of the rules is an offence.

Some organisations are entitled to a free copy of the full register on publication. These include:

  • the Office of National Statistics and National Records of Scotland;
  • the British Library and national libraries in Scotland and Wales;
  • the Electoral Commission and boundary commissions;
  • Returning Officers running an election;

The full register is also used for summoning juries.

Certain individuals and organisations are entitled to free copies of the full register (or part of it) on request. These include:

  • registered political parties – for electoral purposes and for checking donations;
  • elected representatives and candidates standing in elections – they are entitled to the full register for the area they represent or are contesting for electoral purposes and checking donations;
  • referendum campaigners registered with the Electoral Commission;
  • local public libraries and local authority archive services; and
  • the police and security services.

Government departments may buy a full copy for vetting and crime prevention and detection purposes.

Credit reference agencies are entitled to buy a full copy of the register if they fulfil certain criteria. Credit refence agencies use the full register so that lenders can check the names and addresses of people applying for credit and carry out identity checks to help stop money laundering.

Full copies available for inspection or for supply will not include anonymous registration entries. These are exempt and only the regsitration officers and elections staff will have access to data of those registered anonymously. The data of those under 16 who have registered in advance of reaching voting age (where the voting age is 16), is also protected and is only disclosed in very limited circumstances.

The full list of who can receive or buy copies of the electoral register are set out by the Electoral Commission document, Supply of the Electoral Register.

The open register

The open register contains the names and addresses of everyone who has registered to vote but who has not opted out of the open register. The open register is available for sale. Any individual or organisation may buy the open register from an ERO, for any use, on payment of the appropriate fee.

When registering to vote or responding to the annual canvass sent out by the ERO at your local authority, you will be given the option to opt out of the open register.

Currently in Great Britain about 60% of registered electors are opted out of the open register.

The marked register

The marked register, which is the register marked off in polling stations to show who has voted, is open for public inspection after an election. Requests must be in writing and state the purpose of the request. Inspection must be done under supervision only handwritten notes are allowed. Candidates at elections and political parties may also request copies of the marked register for electoral purposes, which may be supplied on payment of a fee.

Creation of the open register

Copies of the electoral register have been made available for sale in one form or another since at least 1832. Electoral law made provision both for the sale of the register and set the fees charged for providing copies.

After the 1997 General Election, a cross-party working party on elections, set up by the then Labour Government and headed by George Howarth, recommended that two versions of the electoral register be made available, the full register and the open (or edited) register. Voters could opt out of the open register and it could be used for commercial purposes.

In November 2001 an elector in Pontefract won a court case. It required the local ERO to stop disclosing information about him on the electoral register to commercial concerns which intended to process this for direct marketing purposes.

New regulations were introduced in 2002 and provided for both a full and an edited version of the electoral register to be compiled. The new registration forms to be used for the annual canvass and throughout the year for rolling registration would include an “opt out” box to allow electors to say if they wanted their details left out of the edited version of the register.

The 2008 Data Sharing Review commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, and a 2011 report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee both called for the abolition of the edited or open register. In July 2020 the House of Lords Committee report on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 recommended that the open register should be abolished saying:

…its compilation serves no public good, it presents a privacy risk and the proceeds from its sale yield an insignificant amount of money for Local Authorities.

Other organisations, including credit reference agencies, debt collection agencies and direct marketing companies, have argued for the retention of the edited register.

The Coalition Government announced during the committee stage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill 2012-13 that the edited register would be retained. The current Government currently has no plans to alter arrangements for the open register. In response to the 2020 House of Lords Committee report, the Government restated its view that it had seen:

no convincing evidence that the existence of the open register, or its use by commercial and other organisations, acts as a disincentive to register to vote.

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