FORMER SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars has declared a “democratic emergency” over mass confusion surrounding the new voting registration system in Scotland.

Scottish students have also spoken of their fears that hundreds could be left off the register and unable to vote in the May 7 General Election because of changes in the way people vote.

Yesterday, The National revealed how Scottish Cabinet minister Alex Neil and MSP Rob Gibson had been forced to provide proof of identity in order to vote despite being registered at the same addresses for nearly 30 years.

They were given days to supply the information and threatened that failure to do so could results in their application for registration being rejected.

Neil, who is Minister for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights and former Health Secretary, said he was astounded that he “didn’t exist” on the electoral register even though he has voted in every election and the Scottish independence referendum last September.

The revelation sparked an investigation by The National which exposed a crisis within Scotland’s voting registration system and fears among voters that they could miss out on their chance to have their say at the General Election on May 7.

Sillars said: “I think it should be recognised by the Electoral Commission and the registration officers that we now have a democratic emergency.

“If people are being rejected incorrectly, if people are not aware of the system, then the Electoral Commission has to recognise it as a democratic emergency, step in now and get this matter sorted out because the right to vote is fundamental to a democracy.

“If an administration shambles prevents someone from casting their vote then democracy is in serious trouble.”

Strathclyde University professor of politics John Curtice and students’ groups expressed concerns about the effect the new system would have on the country’s student population.

Curtice said: “There is an issue which is as a result of beginning to move to individual electoral registration (IER). Anybody who is now wanting to get on the register and is new is having to apply as an individual. Universities, for example, can no longer block register their students.

“Scotland is behind in this process. The process of checking the registers was delayed in Scotland until after the referendum and equally the publication of the registers for the election in Scotland has been delayed as a result.

“But in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the data is already available and it is clear that, as a result of the fact you can no longer block register and new individuals have to use the new procedure, students have fallen off the register.

“There have been big drops in the electorate in places like

Oxford, Reading and Cambridge where there are lots of students and I can anticipate it will be replicated in Scotland.”

Research carried out in England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed that thousands of students had failed to register to vote in the May election after their system was changed to IER last summer.

“They have been caught out by a quirk of the old electoral registration system, which ended last summer south of the Border, under which the responsibility for registering voters lay with the head of the household.

Under plans brought in by the Labour government and accelerated by the Coalition, the system has been changed to individual voter registration. It was introduced in Scotland the day after the independence referendum on September 19.

Strathclyde University Students’ Association president Gary Paterson said: “Students are concerned and from their perspective this is really the wrong time to be trying out a new system just before such a big vote.

“There is a massive issue here for students, particularly those who live at the university. Before this new system was introduced it was so much easier because they were registered en masse by the institution.

“Now we are going to have to do a lot of work over the next month to encourage people to get registered on this new system.

“I don’t foresee as many students being registered as in previous years.”

Chris Glendinning, the national convener of SNP students, said: “As part of our General Election campaign drive we will be contacting students the length and breadth of Scotland to make sure they are registered to vote so they can make their voice heard at Westminster.”

Airdrie and Shotts MSP Alex Neil said despite the fact he had to produce his passport and other documentation he has still not had confirmation that he is registered to vote in May.

Highlands MSP Rob Gibson, meanwhile, vowed to take the matter up with the Electoral Commission after his own similar experience.