Brendan O’Neill

There’s something fishy about this vote registration extension

There's something fishy about this vote registration extension
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Something about the extension of the deadline for registering to vote in the EU referendum doesn’t add up. It even smells a bit fishy. Last night, the registration website crashed as tens of thousands of people tried to register before the midnight deadline; and in response, parliament today announced that it will pass emergency legislation to extend the registration period until midnight on Thursday. So in order to address a two-hour glut of registrations, the registration period will be stretched another 48 hours? Two days of further registration to mop up two hours’ worth of crashed, failed registrations? What’s going on?

There’s a danger we’re witnessing the politicisation of the registration process; the expansion of it to try to capture people who are more likely to vote Remain. There’s a whiff of generational gerrymandering. According to the BBC, virtually everyone who piled on to the registration website yesterday was young, or young-ish. More than 520,000 people tried to register during the day: 132,000 of them were under the age of 25; 170,000 were aged 25 to 34; and 100,000 were aged 35 to 44. We know from virtually every study of attitudes to the EU that the young are far more likely to be pro-EU than the old: 73% of 18- to 29-year-olds are Remainers, where 63% of those over 60 are in favour of Leave. The two-day extension of the registration process seems likely to — designed to? — get more of the mostly pro-EU under-40s signed up.

Over the past month, Remainers have agitated, with a growing sense of dread, for the young to get out and register and save the EU. We’ve seen handwringing articles about how millions of youths are not on the electoral register and reminding us that only 43% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in last year’s General Election, compared with 78% of people over 65. Some Remain campaigning has assumed an ageist bent. ‘Don’t let the oldies decide your future’ — that’s the message. The idea seems to be that if we can get the young out, then we can preserve the sacred EU against the stuck-in-the-mud, anti-Europe stupidity of old fogeys and the poor (who are also more likely to favour Brexit).

Remain’s panic seems to have worked to a certain extent, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of youngish people trying to register yesterday. That mass registration was great, speaking to a desire among a huge section of the population to have their say in a major referendum. Wonderful. The more people we have engaged in democracy, the better. But a deadline is a deadline, no? If you turn up at a polling booth at 10pm, when voting time is over, then you can’t vote — we all know that. The swarm of youngish voters registering at the last minute for the EU referendum are the virtual equivalent of being late to the ballot box. Why are allowances being made? Why have another two days been added? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s because these kind of voters are useful for the establishment view that we must Remain.

The satirical news site Newsthump summed up the madness well with its headline: ‘Three months wasn’t long enough, claims man who couldn’t register to vote at 11.50pm.’ Look, I’m a little torn on this. When it comes to democracy, I’m positively Chartist: the more clout the people have, the better. But I can’t help feeling that today’s rewriting of the rules, and the law, to allow late voters to take part in this ‘great festival of democracy’ — as David Cameron referred to the EU referendum today — is because it is suspected that these late voters will be beneficial to Remain. Accidentally, this might give rise to a larger, more populous act of democracy on 23 June; but the motivation seems a pretty low one to me, being more about using generations to gerrymander the outcome than genuinely throwing open politics to the people. Is this about enfranchising more of the ‘right people’ in order to counter all those wrong’uns already registered?

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