Automatic voter registration plans for Welsh elections called an 'unnecessary confusion'

The proposals, which are designed to "remove barriers to voting", would see eligible individuals automatically registered to vote in Welsh elections. Credit: PA Images

Planned changes to the voting system in Wales have been criticised as an "unnecessary confusion".

The Welsh Government proposals mean people who are eligible to vote could be automatically registered, in a bid to make voting simpler and easier.

Currently people must register to vote but the reforms would see individuals added to the electoral register by their local authority.

This would only apply to local Welsh elections and Senedd elections, not elections deciding MPs as these are the responsibility of the UK Government.

However the Welsh Conservatives said these changes will cause "confusion", as people may assume they are automatically registered for all elections.

Other changes being considered include making information on parties and candidates more accessible, improving the equipment available to help disabled people vote, and the digitization of elections in Wales.

There is currently no date given for when the plans would come into effect, if they go ahead.

Some Welsh councils will be invited to take part in pilot projects to trial automatic voter registration, which the Counsel General Mick Antoniw said will help increase the participation of young people.

Mr Antoniw MS said: "This is another step in improving the accessibility of Welsh elections. We want it to be as easy as possible to vote, with people able to play their full part in our democracy.

"We also want to create political structures that are more representative of the people they serve.

“I’m proud to say that since we assumed responsibility for local and Senedd elections in 2017 we have lowered the voting age to 16 and enfranchised qualifying foreign nationals.

"As part of building a 21st century electoral system, the time is now right to accelerate our ambitious long-term vision for electoral reform in anticipation of the next major devolved and local elections in 2026 and 2027."

The plans will only apply to Senedd elections and council elections here in Wales.

The Welsh Conservatives have criticised this as an unnecessary change to an "already simple" voting system.

Shadow Constitution Minister Darren Millar MS said: “It is not clear why these changes are necessary. Registering to vote is already simple and millions of people in Wales manage to do so every year without any issue whatsoever

“One thing is certain, any changes to the voting system which apply only to some elections and not others will cause unnecessary confusion.

"Automatic registration for Senedd and local elections could lead to voters incorrectly assuming they are registered to vote in all elections and cause them to miss out on voting.

"Worse still, automatic enrolment of people who move home or students at university could increase the risk of people being registered in two places and voting twice.”

The move has been welcomed by the Electoral Reform Society Cymru whose director Jess Blair said, "The proposals to pilot automatic voter registration are an exciting development that take away a hurdle many people face before casting their vote. It follows years of successful use in countries like Denmark, Finland and Estonia."

But she called for more communication ahead of any change.

"However, the key will be in how we communicate these pilots and ensuring that people are aware of these changes. Registration letters have often acted as a reminder to people of an upcoming election, this must be replaced with other communications letting people know that they are registered as well as when, where and how they can cast their vote."

The proposals have also been welcomed by Plaid Cymru. However the party's spokesperson for post-16 education, Sioned Williams said they need to be accompanied by increased education. 

“As with the extension of voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds, people will not be empowered to vote unless they are inspired to vote. Indeed, unless you vote at a young age you are less likely to vote in the future, so, while I welcome this move by Welsh Government to pilot the automatic registration of voters, it must go hand in hand with measures to increase the numbers of voters beyond those included in the new curriculum - which of course will be too late for a whole cohort of learners and those who have already left school.“We need to see political education both in educational and community settings as automatically registering a person to vote will not increase voter engagement unless they are first fully informed and engaged with the democratic process.”