Prime minister Boris Johnson has twice tried and failed to call a snap general election, and the public, it seems, have been paying attention.
In the 72 hours following Johnson’s first attempt on September 4, nearly 200,000 people have applied to register to vote. More than half of these applications were from people aged under 35. Applications have remained high since: among this younger demographic they have clocked in at a rate of tens of thousands per day – there were more than 25,000 applications from this demographic on September 10, for instance. In total, more than one million people have registered to vote since Johnson became prime minister.
By any measure, the surge is large. “In 2017, there was around 600,000 [applications] on the final deadline day – with this surge it was about a quarter of a million in the week. This is quite large, given the election hasn’t actually been called,” says Toby James, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia.
The youth-heavy makeup of this registration is also typical. “About a third of young people – 18 to 24 year olds – are missing from the electoral register, or incorrectly registered,” says James. In contrast, 95 per cent of people over 65 are registered. The young are more likely to move house than older age groups, he explains, and are therefore less likely to have registered at their current address. Couple this with the fact that the Electoral Commission found that between 7.8 and 8.5 million eligible UK voters were not correctly registered, and it is hardly surprising that a sudden influx of new applications occur when a general election seems likely.
It’s important to bear in mind that these are applications, and therefore not necessarily new registrations. Since no process exists to distinguish between those who are already registered and those who are re-registering just in case, a considerable chunk of this figure may be made up of duplicate applications.
And among these registration, some will certainly be students acting tactically. “You have a strange situation with students, where they can choose where they can register twice,” says James. “They can take their home constituency and university constituency, and then choose where to vote.”
So who stands to benefit from the rise? The Labour party released a Facebook advert, so far seen by between 500,000 and a million people, on September 8 encouraging people to sign up and register. This advert cited a Times story reporting that Boris Johnson’s campaign team privately admitted that the campaign had factored in university term times in choosing an election date – those who were on the electoral roll at their home address, it was thought, would be less likely to travel home to vote during term time.
According to James Sloam, a reader in politics at Royal Holloway, youth registration is more likely to help Labour than the Conservatives. While researching for his book Youthquake, Sloam found that Labour attracted record numbers of 18 to 24-year-olds in the 2017 general election. The Conservatives, on the other hand, netted a little over a quarter of that voting demographic. “The 62 per cent to 27 per cent gap in this age group between the two parties is the largest since reliable records began in the early 1970s, says Sloam.
Yet the benefits can also be overstated, says Will Jennings, professor of political science at the University of Southampton. In a relatively old population coupled where older people are more likely to vote than under-25s that actually make up the electorate is small. “If you held 2015 as a baseline, and you increase this kind of shifting turnout in the vote for Labour, it mattered about 1.5 percentage points total of the whole 41 per cent of the vote,” he says. “It’s quite a small fraction of the vote and it’s not going to swing the election one way or the other.”
This idea that increased voter registration benefits Labour also assumes that the youth vote will break the same way as it did in 2017, which is by no means a guarantee explains Sloam. “It seems like the youth vote is now much more fragmented than in 2017,” he says. “The LibDems have picked up, given Labour’s reluctance to back referendum or Remain and the Greens have grown in youth support in the context of climate emergency.”
According to Cat Smith, Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood and shadow minister for women, the Labour Party’s motive to increase electoral registration isn’t tactical – it’s driven by a commitment to a fair and healthy democratic process. “The electoral roll is incredibly inaccurate – there are millions of people that are not registered correctly, and we know the students and young people people who rent privately are more likely to be either not registered at all or not registered correctly,” she says. “We’re really concerned that when the election happens, the electoral roll should be as accurate as it possibly can be, you know, we’re aiming for 100 per cent [accuracy].”
She says the advert, which was generally targeted across all of the party’s channels, was influenced by this aspect of the Times article. “We’re saying it’s hugely undemocratic to try and timetable an election to disenfranchise voters because you think they don’t agree with you,” she says.
Femi Oluwole, a British political activist and co-founder of the pro-European Union advocacy group Our Future Our Choice argues that, in the Brexit context, it is particularly urgent that young people make their voices heard. “The referendum was set in 2016, at a time that was precisely when students were either getting exam results, finishing exams, or halfway between two different addresses – the worst imaginable time for students,” he says. “The under 65 population of UK is the Remain-voting population on average, and that is the generation that will work through Brexit – it is super important that they make their voices heard in any general election or referendum.”
More great stories from WIRED
💩 Japanese self-cleaning toilets are conquering the West
📱 The new Android 10 features that will transform your phone
📖 The best sci-fi books everyone should read
🍫 The foods you’ll really need to stockpile for no-deal Brexit
♻️ The truth behind the UK’s biggest recycling myths
📧 Get the best tech deals and gadget news in your inbox