Monday, 2 February 2015

I could lose the right to vote in the General Election

Back in late July 2014, I received a new, more complicated form from Mid Sussex District Council about my continued listing on the Electoral Register, and, with that, the right to vote in local and national elections. It was a big departure from the old-style annual form, whose layout had hardly altered since I first started to receive such forms back in the late 1970s, as a new householder in my own right.

'Aha!' said I. 'Those vote-rigging scandals in certain parts of the country have had their effect. They now want to ensure that all voter names have a real person behind them. Someone who can be traced in existing official records. That's why they are asking me for my national insurance number.' It also occurred to me that the Electoral Register, and in fact the entire machinery for voting, was going to be made accessible to computers, both mobile and fixed, at some point soon. Fair enough. I filled the form in, signed it, and made a digital copy using my camera. Then I posted it off.

And I thought that would be that. I'd been voting as Lucy Melford since the second half of 2009. They knew that I existed - after all, I paid my Council Tax by monthly direct debit - and that I had turned up at the village Polling station on election dates, as bright as brass button, as keen and eager as a Jenny Wren, and had duly exercised my rights as a citizen.

And then, not quite three weeks ago I received a letter that told me that Election Services at the Council's Haywards Heath HQ hadn't been able to process my form.

Their exact words were: '...not able to process your application [to be on the Election Register] because your national insurance number and date of birth provided in the application did not match against official records.' Really? They wanted to see alternative evidence of identity - three different items, such as my passport, my birth certificate, or a very recent pension statement. No problem there. I could send a clear photocopy, or the original for copying, or arrange an appointment to present these things in person.

This was simple to deal with - but baffling. There must be some mistake. Maybe if I spoke to Electoral Services, I could sort matters out. I rang them up.

The girl who dealt with me seemed on the ball and very helpful. I explained that I could easily prove that I was Lucy Melford by showing her my passport, my birth certificate and any household document she cared to name. But was it actually necessary? No, she said: this was a obviously a glitch in the checking process. I had somehow ended up on a 'no-match' list sent back from the Department for Work and Pensions. As I had got in touch personally, she only needed to confirm my date of birth and national insurance number over the phone, make a note of our conversation, and then she'd process my application manually. So she didn't want to see anything I had to show her? No. Right then!

Wrong...

Just before the weekend I got another 'we can't process your application' letter. They gave me until 12 February to respond. I certainly wasn't going to ignore it! The General Election was coming up on 7 May. I wanted an assurance that my name would be on that Register. I phoned Electoral Services again, this time speaking to a young chap who also seemed on the ball and very helpful. I knew he was going to tell me that I was on the 'no-match' list, which apparently they referred to as the 'red' list, as opposed to the 'green' one. But I had by now guessed the reason why the DWP couldn't respond to any routine query put to them - I was a 'restricted records' case there. Their computer wasn't allowed to confirm anything about me. No match would ever be possible. But I was happy to come up to Haywards Heath and show him my rich harvest of identity documents - and I'd do it asap, because time was pressing.

I said all this to the young chap. He understood. He looked at my computer record at Electoral Services. Ah! No need to come up and show him anything - following my previous phone call, I had already been placed on the Register. He didn't know why I was still on their 'red' list, but that listing was the reason I'd been sent a second letter. He'd now remove my name from it, and email me a letter confirming that my name was definitely on the Register.

Thank you.

And the emailed 'you have been added to the Register' letter arrived almost immediately. Exactly what I wanted to see!

Still, two things now bother me.

First thing. My faith has been shaken. Will I really get a Polling Card shortly before 7 May? If not, it'll be much too late to sort out any mistake that is still jamming up the system. Who knows: once mismatched, forever mismatched - and no human intervention will prevail against the machines.

I'd be highly annoyed if I still wasn't invited to the party. I suppose I'd have to shrug my shoulders at taking no part in the General Election. What else could I do? It would make a brilliant news story if I went public. And I could at least say that I bore no possible personal responsibility whatever for any bizarre or unworkable Election result!

Second thing. What if (unbelievably - or only too believably?) I get a third 'can't process' letter while away on holiday in early March? And I miss the deadline for dealing with it? Grrrrrrrrr!

Or even worse, that letter arrives on the very morning I depart, and I have to spend prime holiday time sorting all this out yet again, with no great hope of achieving anything. Do I in fact rush home for a night, in order to make that short trip to Haywards Heath with my documents? And have that personal interview, and see that they copy what they need, and amend their records, and swear to me - the senior manager included - that all will now be well? And that if it still isn't, then on 7 May the Council will arrange for a police helicopter to convey me to the Polling Station, with the Chief Constable and the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex in attendance to vouch for me, their word and presence guaranteeing that I shall not be denied my right to vote?

Oh dear. I don't really like flying.

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Lucy Melford