Open electoral register

When you complete your annual electoral registration form you have the option to opt out of having your personal details included on the open electoral register. It's important to tick the opt-out box on the form.

The basics

Would you give everybody a carte blanche to do with your personal details as they see fit? If you don't you want to opt out of being listed on the open version of the electoral roll. The list can be bought by any person or organisation and the data on the list may be used for any purpose. Junk mailers use the register as a cheap and convenient mailing list and people-finding companies such as 192.com use it to sell your details. What other people and companies are doing with the data is unknown (as anyone can buy the list and do with it what they like – no questions asked).

The 'full' and 'open' electoral register

There are two electoral registers. The full register lists everyone who is entitled to vote. Only certain people and organisations can have copies of the full register, and they can only use it for specific purposes. These include electoral purposes (which isn't defined and interpreted liberally), the prevention and detection of crime, and checking your identity when you've applied for credit.

The open register omits the names and addresses of people who have asked for them to be excluded from that version of the register. It's this version of the register that's on public sale.

A bit of history

The open register was introduced after a High Court ruling in November 2001 (known as the 'Robertson Case'). At the time the Representation of the Peoples Act required Electoral Registration Officers to supply a copy of the electoral register to anyone on payment of a fee. This was challenged by a member of the public (Mr Robertson) who objected to the use of electoral data for direct marketing purposes. The court ruled it's unlawful to sell copies of the electoral register to private businesses without giving people the choice not to have their information used in this way (not doing so was considered inconsistent with both the Data Protection Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights).

Instead of simply banning the sale of voters' personal details the Government of the day decided to set up a second, 'edited' version of the electoral roll. Since, the Information Commissioner, Association of Electoral Administrators, Electoral Commission, Local Government Association and House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have all asked the Government to abolish the 'for sale' register. Most recently, the future of the register was debated as part of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Unfortunately, Government has decided not to abolish the it. In June 2012, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform told the House that he had seen no evidence that the existence of the roll acts as a disincentive to people registering and that Government therefore agrees with those who argue that abolishing the register would have a negative social and economic impact (even though that claim hasn't been evidenced either).

As an aside, it's a myth that the sale of the open register is a nice little earner for local Councils – the sale of the register doesn't reduce your Council Tax Bill. By law, Councils have to charge a meagre £21.50 for every 1,000 entries (even less if they provide the data in printed form). This amount apparently reflects the cost of providing the data (including, I assume, the cost of keeping two separate versions of the electoral roll). When politicians talk about the 'negative economic impact' of abolishing the register they're referring to things such as junk mailers losing access to a cheap and up to date database with names and addresses.

How to opt out

To prevent your name and address are sold you need to tick an opt-out box on your annual registration form. It's worth noting that you don't have to postpone opting out until the next annual canvas. You can opt out at any time of the year by contacting your Electoral Registration Office. You can find the contact details for your local office via the About my vote website (run by the Electoral Commission).

Once you've opted out your opted out indefinitely. It used to be the case that you needed to opt out annually but this is no longer the case – your opt-out will be carried forward to future versions of the electoral register. It's worth noting that the reverse isn't true. Anyone can still use old versions of the register on which you weren't opted out as a commodity.

Getting your details removed from 192.com

When you opt out of being included on the open register for the first time you'll find that your personal details continue to be published by people-finding websites such as 192.com. One of the nasty things about the open register is that when you don't opt out you give all and sundry preemptive consent to do with your personal data what they want. After opting out companies such as 192.com are no longer able to copy and paste your details from the next version of the role – but they can still publish your details as they appeared on previous editions of the roll (i.e. when you were not opted out). Rightly, preemptive consent is usually associated with stupidity.

To get 192.com to remove your details from its website you need to complete the company's record removal form. Please be kind and print a couple of the forms for friends and family as well!

The telephone directory

As an aside, BT's telephone directory is another source of data for companies like 192.com. And, as shown by BBC Panorama in July 2012, some cold calling companies use the phone book as a cold calling list – without checking if you may have registered with the Telephone Preference Service. Your only option to stop such abuse is by going ex-directory.

Last updated: 
15th June 2015