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Voter registration and university enrolment #AMillionMoreVoices

20 Nov , 2016  

Across the country, Labour Students clubs, members and SU officers have been working hard on voter registration and campaigning for universities to integrate voter registration in the University enrolment process, in line with our A Million More Voices priority campaign.

Here Becky Gittins, former Chair of Warwick Labour Students and now the Democracy and Development Officer at Warwick SU, describes in step-by-step detail her fight to win on this issue, the set-backs she’s had and her top tips #AMillionMoreVoices

Since 2014, UK universities have no longer been able to automatically register students to vote as part of the enrolment process. This is due to the change to individual registration which stripped the university of its data-collecting capacity. Before assuming my position as Democracy and Development Officer at Warwick SU on the 1st August, the new SU officer team were given two weeks of handover training. This is where I was first approached by a member of staff who wanted me to help try to make voter registration part of the university enrolment process once again. She had tried to put this item on the agenda several times before but it had been rejected on the basis that it conflicted with the enrolment team’s overarching long-standing project: ‘Simplify, Collaborate, Deliver’; after a catastrophic enrolment process the year before, the enrolment team had worked hard to reduce the number of pages in the enrolment portal. The voter registration project looked set to put their progress in jeopardy.

I hit the ground running on this project on my first day in office. I first looked at the work my predecessor had done with the local councils and tried to make links with previous contacts. After several long-winded, automated phone calls, I found the people I was after. Warwick University is in the unique position that the campus straddles two councils, not to mention the wide dispersal of students living off campus, so the process was slightly more complicated. From working with the councils and doing some preliminary research, I deduced that the voter registration project would consist of two component parts: 1) a data sharing agreement was required so that the university can act as a data collector on behalf of the councils (this needed to tie in with a data sharing agreement between the councils so we could sift the information to the right place once collected); 2) changes needed to be made to the software we currently use for enrolment to accommodate some eligibility criteria tick boxes, an opt out box and a place to enter your National Insurance number (this is the only extra piece of info the councils require to register students automatically).

I took my case to the Vice Chancellor (VC) and was really enthused to find he was in support. He added an extra spanner to the works when he decided he would like to do it as a project with Coventry University. With his major focus on regionalism, two councils wasn’t enough for our new VC, he wanted two universities involved as well. Luckily, the elections manager at Coventry City Council had good contact with the academic registrar of Coventry Uni and they were also keen to do the project in tandem. Sadly, the VC’s enthusiasm wasn’t shared by staff who had worked hard on the ‘Simplify, Collaborate, Deliver’ project and resented a new VC and SU officer’s wild ambitions for their hard work. I understood this but their resistance was difficult to take. The VC had told me that there would be push back on HOW we go about delivering the project but he told me to challenge any criticism of the principle of the project itself. This advice has been incredibly useful in how I have dealt with criticism and push-backs. I spoke to someone who had previously worked in the enrolment team on the software development so I could better understand resistance to the ‘how’, knowing this allowed me to confidently challenge resistance to the principle when it inevitably came.

The biggest challenge to the principle of the project was whether voter registration should have a place in the enrolment process. The current enrolment process has an ‘enrolment dashboard’ at the end of the process which contains things such as health centre registration. The first response was that putting voter registration in enrolment would bulk it out and contrasted their ongoing project. The appeasement was to put it in the dashboard.

The biggest challenge on the ‘how’ was time. The academic registrar came back from his holiday and said “we can have it in for next year” which I, of course, wasn’t happy with. I started as a sabb on the 1st August and enrolment opened on the 22nd August so we missed the initial annual enrolment period for undergraduates but I was determined that having it in for January meant that around 200 postgraduate students who enrolled throughout the year could benefit from it. This would act as a sort of trial, allowing us to amend the process before the much larger enrolment in August. The VC agreed and the academic registrar, once on board, was committed to pushing the project forward to meet this deadline.

The persistence of myself and the councils, as well as support from the VC’s office and academic registrar, saw the first meeting of all of the key stake holders: the SU, the council election managers, the enrolment team, the university legal team, the IT services manager, a representative from the VC’s office and the academic registrar. In this meeting, we got to grips with the scope of the project and thrashed out some potential challenges. We have a second meeting scheduled for mid-November where I should finally hear the schedule for the project’s implementation (finger’s crossed) to meet the January deadline.

I know that the project is now too far advanced for nothing at all to be done on automatic voter registration but I’m not patting myself on the back just yet. My greatest worry is timing; that in the next meeting they might tell me it can’t be done before January but I’ll keep pushing because I know it’s possible and that I have substantial support from key stakeholders. I have thought about the potential (given the legal agreement would be settled and the software would be sorted and trialled) of having the voter registration page of the new enrolment process sent out to current students by way of a voter registration drive led by the university. However, given the look on their faces when I proposed this interim solution at the last meeting, I think that might be a battle for another day… Still, I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made so far.

5 top tips I learnt from my experience:

  1. Do your research – find out what has already been done and the situation at your institution
  2. Work with your Student Union Officers as they will know the context and should be able to help you
  3. Get a draft data access agreement and resources for your campaign – you can do that by getting in touch with the Labour Students national officers
  4. Get to know the detail – don’t be fobbed off because you didn’t understand the process or what needed to be done
  5. Make your arguments clearly and concisely and always challenge any criticism of the principle of what you are doing

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