DID BBC FAVOUR ‘REMAIN’ IN VOTER REGISTRATION PUSH? The specially-extended deadline to register to vote in the EU referendum passed on Thursday night. According to the BBC, an extra 430,000 voters registered, approximately half of whom were under 35.
The official registration site crashed on Tuesday not long before midnight under pressure of sheer volume as the actual pre-set deadline approached. The government reacted swiftly in response, introducing special legislation to facilitate the extension. Some – including Aaron Banks, leader of the Leave.EU group – claim this was a breach of electoral law because it broke the terms of a process that had been carefully agreed and set in stone to ensure fairness.
Does Banks have a case? According to some sources, yes. The is what the Daily Mail wrote about the extra voters:
‘Nearly a quarter of a million people registered to vote on the first day of the extended window to sign up for the EU referendum – five times more than the number of people who were blocked when the website crashed.
‘Brexit campaigners accused David Cameron of ‘desperate cheating’ by extending the deadline for 48 hours, despite the website being down for just 105 minutes on Tuesday night.
‘The move has allowed 240,000 people to sign up for a vote, over half of whom are under the age of 35.’
The fact that over half the number of extra registrants are under 35 is the key point here. Back in April, an opinion poll in The Guardian observed:
Opinium found that in the 18-34 age group, 53% said they backed staying in, against 29% who wanted to leave. But only just over half (52%) in this age group said they were certain to actually go out and vote.
Thus it was established that young people were heavily more likely to back the ‘remain’ side, but might not actually vote. It seems that in response, David Cameron and the senior command in the ‘remain’ side started (and allegedly funded) a vigorous online social media campaign to encourage the young to register.
The registration site crash, it seems, would thus have been seen as a blow to the hopes of the ‘remain’ side, and the move to ensure an extension can thus be viewed as a knee-jerk response by Cameron – moving rapidly in his own interest. The upshot is that he has secured an extra 250,000 voters more likely to support him.
The BBC’s handling of the voter registration issue is deeply suspicious. Were they following the David Cameron agenda too closely and thus favouring the ‘remain’ side?
It can first be observed that voter registration isn’t normally a high-profile issue during elections. It is regarded as a procedural matter, even though many millions – up to 30% of the UK population – do not vote, and many of these are not even on the voting register. The proportion of population who voted at the last general election in 2015 was around only 66%.
By contrast, as an issue in the referendum, however, it seems that voter registration was treated as a matter of the highest priority by the BBC. On Tuesday, as the deadline approached, it was a feature of almost every bulletin, and there were also several features about the topic.
BBC1’s ‘Breakfast’ (6am – 9am) ran registration items approximately every fifteen minutes, including a location report from Stratford in East London, where the studio presenter noted that ‘So far it’s young people under the age of 34 have been making the most applications to register’, but reporter Graham Satchell opened his report by noting, conversely, that the Electoral Commission had identified inner-city areas like Stratford as containing the highest percentages of young people who hadn’t registered to vote in the referendum.
On Radio 4, the Today programme carried an interview with Alex Robertson, Director of Communications at the Electoral Commission, who warned people not to ‘leave it too late’, explained the deadline, and noted that ex-pats who had been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years would be able to vote. In the Today sequence John Humphrys made it clear that those who were already on the electoral register did not have to reapply, and Mr Robertson confirmed that there was no ‘kind of special electoral register’ for the referendum.
As the day progressed many shorter bulletins (for example hourly bulletins on BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 2) noted that this was the last day to vote in the referendum, and provided the website address for voting.
The BBC1 News at Six provided a breakdown of recent registration figures, including the numbers under the age of 35. There was a location report from Lambeth College, showing young people being registered to vote, with the commentary that, ‘in or out, Britain’s future with the EU will probably impact this generation the most’, and interviews with some young people who didn’t seem enthused about voting, along with a soundbite from Josh Pugh, who was attempting to get people to register. The correspondent did note ‘if you’re already on the electoral role, you don’t need to do anything, the voting cards should be on their way’ – but the reference was so short as to be potentially confusing, with no explanation, for example, that anyone who voted in the last general election ought to be already registered unless they’d moved house in the meantime.
BBC1’s One Show carried an interview with David Dimbleby, and a reminder that people could register to vote until midnight, and the brief BBC1 Bulletin at 7.59pm simply said “don’t forget you have just four hours to go to register to vote in the EU referendum. You can sign up at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote”
BBC 1’s News at Ten again focused on young voters, with Gavin Hewitt reporting from Reading College, and noted the midnight deadline and that millions were still yet to register, and spoke to a variety of young people who had and hadn’t registered, while noting that a number of people were ‘unsure’ whether they were registered.
On Radio 4’s World Tonight, Shaun Ley noted that registrations were closing at midnight, but set out in clearer terms that if people had voted in the general election, or this year’s local elections and hadn’t changed address then there was no requirement to register again.
On BBC2’s Newsnight, correspondent Nicholas Watt revealed in stark terms how voter registration – and a subsequent higher turnout – might benefit the Remain side:
Well, it looks like tomorrow we will get a statement from the Electoral Commission giving us an idea of the numbers of people who registered to vote, and the indications are that more people are registering to vote than registered for the general election, and what is interesting is coming through there, it appears that the 18 to 24-year-old age group, and people who live abroad seem to be registering in higher numbers than they did last year. And those are the sort of people who may vote for Remain. So, that might be quite good news for Remain, because, if you remember, if it’s a low turnout, below 55%, good for Brexit, if it’s between 55% and 70%, it’s good for Remain. But if you go right above 75% then Brexit are back in business.
Evan Davis subsequently noted that this was ‘good news for Remain on that kind of registration process, but there is some good news for Leave as well’ in the shape of a poll which predicted a win for ‘leave’. Could this have been a further spur to lead ‘remain’ supporters voters to register?
By the end of Newsnight, the registration website was in overdrive and soon afterwards crashed.
In the context of the continuous publicity given to the issue during the day was this surprising?
Before the programme closed, Evan Davis again spoke to Nicholas Watt. He said that at 10pm, 50,000 people were trying to use the registration website at the same time. In a brief interview, Martin Lewis from Moneysavingexpert.com encouraged people to keep trying, given that web traffic in the UK ought to tail off towards midnight. Lewis also observed that there was ‘a democratic question’ in terms of the people who had attempted to register online earlier in the evening but had not been able to vote in what he said was ‘the most important consumer decision of our lifetimes.’ Evan Davis said it would be difficult for any leeway to be given, because the voter registration date is ‘set in law’. He noted that he had been planning to remind viewers as he closed the programme that they had 50 minutes left to register.
The issues here are complex. It could normally be argued that encouraging voters to register is a public service matter for the BBC. However, the referendum created complicating factors. First was that it had been widely been established (and reported by the BBC among others) that young people were less likely to bother to vote or register. That became a matter which David Cameron and the ‘remain’ side was specially pursuing via social networking in order to boost the ‘remain’ vote. In turn, that meant that registration was potentially a partisan matter to be treated with caution and with careful reference (under the BBC’s referendum coverage guidelines) to the issues involved. It seems ’however, that on the Tuesday, as the deadline approached, BBC editors on all the main news programme outlets had no such caution. Instead the volume of coverage, and the high priority afforded to it, suggest that editors went flat out to emphasise the ‘register’ message without any form of qualifying explanation. It is arguable that the publicity afforded to this by the BBC programmes may have actually been a significant factor contributing to the registration site crash. The knock-on effect was that David Cameron secured an extra 250,000 registrants who he believed were more likely to vote ‘remain’.