2017: A significant year for UK democratic participation

Find out about our new report which examines the 2017 elections from the perspective of those who voted, as well as those who chose not to. What can we learn for 2018?

By Craig Westwood, Director of Communications and Research, Electoral Commission

2017 has been a significant year for UK democracy. Local elections were scheduled for 4 May across Great Britain, as well as new combined authority mayoral elections in some parts of England. Only a few weeks into the year, on 16 January, a snap Northern Ireland Assembly election was announced for 2 March. Then on 18 April came the announcement of a snap UK general election on 8 June.

Our Voting in 2017 report provides an overview of public attitudes towards the process of voting and democracy in the UK. This is the first time that we have produced this kind of report, which looks across different polls – including different geographies, different franchises and different voting systems – to draw conclusions about the views and attitudes of UK citizens. The report is based on surveys with over 6,000 members of the public following the polls that took place in 2017, as well as on other insights from data gathered in relation to the 2017 polls.

Over 44 million votes were cast at the six different polls in 2017. Remarkably, at every poll, turnout was higher than at the previous equivalent election – most notably at the Northern Ireland Assembly and Scottish council elections.

At the UK general election the driving force behind much of the increase in turnout was the mobilisation of young people. Our research found that 18% of 18-24-year-olds reported that this poll was their first time voting, while only 3% of those 18-24s claimed this was because they had not been eligible previously.

Thursday 1

While up on previous elections, turnout at the local elections in May was significantly lower than at the general election or at the Northern Ireland Assembly election. As chart 1 shows, we found that young people were still far less likely than their older counterparts to say they had voted.

Well-informed voters are fundamental to the democratic process. We know that feeling informed is closely connected to the decision to turnout.

Our findings indicate a clear disparity in the levels of awareness at the 2017 local elections, between older and younger voters and between those who are more and less electorally engaged. For example, we asked people in England with local government elections if they felt they had enough information to make an informed choice on who to vote for – one third of all respondents, including nearly half of 18-34-year-olds, disagreed.

Thursday 2 awareness

Of course, motivation is important; we know those who want to vote will seek information. In the absence of the pervasive national media coverage that accompanies a general election, those voters that felt most informed about the May local elections relied on leaflets from political parties (62%), local authority (14%) and candidate websites (15%) as well as talking to their family and friends (14%) to equip themselves with sufficient information to cast their ballot confidently.

This underlines the importance of direct forms of communication and the work of parties and campaigners. With further local elections coming up in England in May 2018 – including across the whole of London – it is clear that more work needs to be done to ensure that information about these elections and about the candidates who are standing is reaching a wider audience.

Positively, most people continue to say that elections in the UK are well run – with confidence highest among those who actually vote and experience the system first-hand. However, there is no room for complacency and our research highlighted areas where we believe further work is needed.

While most people continue to be satisfied with the system of registering to vote, there is also support for further improvement, with two thirds supporting the idea of automatically registering electors when they are issued with a National Insurance number. We have recently published our assessment of the system of electoral registration and highlighted several such areas for improvement.

Finally, the perception of electoral fraud continues to be an issue at UK elections. While the vast majority believe voting in general to be safe, there remains a level of concern, albeit based more on media coverage than direct experience. In June, 15% of those that believed fraud had taken place thought the lack of ID had contributed to that belief. We have previously recommended the introduction of an ID requirement for voters at polling stations in Great Britain, as has been in operation successfully in Northern Ireland for some years. The UK government’s planned pilot scheme for voters to show ID at polling stations at the May 2018 local government elections is welcome; we will publish a full, independent evaluation of this by summer 2018.

Read more in our Voting in 2017 report or follow us @ElectoralCommUK.

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Time for modernising elections in Wales

By Rhydian Thomas, Head of the Electoral Commission, Wales

The Welsh Government has consulted on modernising the way local elections in Wales are conducted and today we publish our views on these proposals.

Areas being consulted on include extending the franchise for local government elections to 16 and 17 year olds;  improving electoral registration; ; modernising the electoral process; the use of the Welsh language in elections and making voting more accessible for voters while maintaining its security.

One part of my role as Head of the Electoral Commission in Wales is to make sure elected representatives have the information they need to assist them in making decisions relating to our changing democracy. While it’s not appropriate for the Commission to give a view on all the questions asked, such as the merits of making changes to the franchise or to voting systems, we have shared our experience and understanding from other parts of the UK and have made a number of recommendations on matters where we do have a view.

ENGLISH tweet2One important area addressed in our response is that of electoral registration. It underpins our democracy and therefore it is vital that the system puts voters first and is easy for people to access. After all, nobody can vote unless they are registered.

Many people today have an expectation that services should work together to get people registered. As proposed in the consultation, it is now time to move away from a system which relies on voters taking steps to register themselves, and instead develop an automatic or direct enrolment process which has the potential to deliver more accurate and complete electoral registers more efficiently than current resource intensive canvass processes.

When someone moves home they are generally faced with an arduous to-do list, from setting up utility bills and signing up with a local GP to working out when the bins are collected and where best to park the car. In all this, registering to vote is often low on many people’s lists and I am sure many people mistakenly assume they are placed on the register when they update their records with their local authority.

It is also the case that electoral administrators reported a significant number of duplicate applications were received in the weeks before both the May 2017 local elections in Wales and the June 2017 general election. By this I mean voters submitted new registrations, not realising that they were already registered to vote. We continue to recommend that an online ‘look up’ facility should be provided on a UK-wide basis for electors to check whether they are already registered and we are keen to explore options for enhancing the existing online registration service.

We think the registration system in Wales could also be improved by combining the electoral registers for each local authority into one single register for Wales. This could make it easier to share information when people move home and help identify duplicate entries, improving the accuracy of the register.

There is now a Wales Electoral Coordination Board which brings together the senior Returning Officers in Wales, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission, Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales and the UK Government. The aim of this group is to assist in enabling well run elections in Wales by coordinating policy on electoral matters and ensuring consistency of electoral management. We believe the development of this group is vitally important to bringing together the Welsh Government’s electoral modernisation programme and consideration should be given to how the role of the Board could be developed, in the medium to long term, to support Welsh Government’s overarching electoral modernisation programme.

ENGLISH tweet1It is time to modernise the laws governing our elections. Many of the rules currently in place have not been changed since they were introduced over 100 years ago. The Electoral Commission continues to support the recommendations to modernise and simplify electoral law made by the Law Commissions in 2016 and ask that the Welsh Government takes them into consideration when developing their proposals.

This is an opportunity for Wales to develop and showcase its modern democracy and we are ready to work with the Welsh Government to explore how their proposals can be implemented for the good of all voters in Wales.

Read our response to the consultation here.

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Our commitment to working bilingually in Wales

By Sioned Wyn, Welsh Language Adviser, Electoral Commission

To celebrate International Translation Day our Welsh Language Adviser, Sioned introduces the history of the Welsh language and why we work bilingually in Wales…

Shwmae (Hi)! I’ve been the Commission’s Welsh Language Adviser (Cynghorydd yr Iaith Gymraeg) since May 2013. Welsh is my first language, and it’s the only language I speak with my family and most of my friends. I’m not sure what would happen if I tried speaking in English with my Mamgu (Grandmother)!

You may be surprised to find out that Welsh is the oldest living language in Europe, dating back to the 6th century. Its roots are in the Brittonic language, which was spoken as far north as Scotland. While these days you’re not likely to hear a lot of Welsh spoken among the Scots, you can still see some traces of it in place names across Scotland, like Edinburgh.

Today Welsh is an official language in Wales. In fact, 27.8% of people in Wales are able to speak Welsh and all children up to the age of 16 learn the Welsh language in school, whether they attend a Welsh or English medium school.

The aim of the 2011 Welsh Language (Wales) Measure, where the Welsh language standards come from, is to make it easier for Welsh speakers in Wales to live their life in Welsh. The standards mean people have the right to ensure the services they receive from public bodies, such as the Commission and local authorities, are available in Welsh to them if they wish. It also follows on that making sure that all children in Wales learn Welsh is a little pointless if they don’t have any chance to speak it socially and in their day to day lives.

The standards vary between each organisation, depending on the work they do, and who their stakeholders are. But there is a common thread of equality – ensuring that people in Wales can use our services, documents and see our campaigns in the language of their choice.

Campaign

Here at the Commission we’re committed to ensuring that all communication with people in Wales is done bilingually in Welsh and English in line with the Welsh language standards. In practice, this means that we translate documents from English into Welsh for our Welsh audiences. Since March this year alone we’ve translated around 300,000 words!

The process of translation itself is not as simple as it may seem. It’s about creating new text and making sure that whatever the reader is reading, they believe it was written in that language. It takes time to consider sentence structure (which is very different in Welsh and English), and ensuring that the tone and feeling of the piece is carried over to the translated language.

Our commitment means that Welsh speakers can call us to ask about registering or voting and can contact us on social media through @ElectoralWales, @DyBleidlaisDi or Facebook.

Welsh is a part of who I am, and I’m proud to ensure that my fellow Welsh speakers can get the information they need to exercise their democratic right in the language they choose.

Get in touch with us on Twitter or email to get more info about the Welsh language standards.

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Did the Electoral Commission really suggest banning people from voting?

By Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission

Some recent media reports have suggested the Electoral Commission was calling for ‘social media trolls’ to be banned from voting in our response to the current  Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) inquiry into intimidation of Parliamentary candidates . Although the resulting debate has been helpful in highlighting that current electoral law struggles to reflect 21st century realities, many of the headlines made rather more of what we said than was reasonable or justified.

We have not simply recommended that internet trolls, or anybody else, should lose their rights to vote. Nor do we seek to, or think people would want us to, become a ‘Truth Commission’, deciding what can and can’t be said in election campaigns. As some commentators were quick to point out this week, that would be a dangerous road down which to embark. I couldn’t agree more.

What we did point out was that some existing election offences already carry special consequences for those found guilty of them, including removal from the electoral register or preventing them from voting for up to five years. That this is so little understood is a good indication of just how outdated and irrelevant much of the decades or centuries old legislation around elections is today.

We went on to suggest that it would be worth considering, in looking at any new legislation, whether some similar special consequences could be a deterrent in today’s circumstances. Whether they really would be appropriate would obviously be a question for the legal experts in the first place and then for Parliament. We were not attempting to take a view either way.

Our broader position, though, is clear: the UK’s strong tradition of free elections is an essential part of a healthy democracy, and people should be able to stand for election and campaign without fear of abuse or intimidation. However, now there is evidence that this is not always the case, the fact that many offences in electoral law have not been reviewed or updated since they were first created in the 19th century does not help matters, to say the least.

As a first step, we continue to urge the UK’s governments to implement proposals made last year by the UK’s Law Commissions to make it easier for everyone to understand and comply with election laws, and for the police and prosecutors to enforce them.

Our submission highlighted the example of section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which specifies an offence of exerting undue influence on voters (for example, by threatening or using violence) – this is a particularly complex provision that the Law Commission proposes to reform. There is currently no similar offence relating to the intimidation of candidates.

It may be that there is no need for a new offence as the general criminal law might be sufficient. There are of course already laws making it a criminal offence to threaten, harass or abuse anyone, or to make racist, homophobic or sexist comments online. The CSPL should, and no doubt will, seek expert advice from police forces and prosecutors to determine whether any extra deterrent would be proportionate or useful when it comes to election candidates and campaigners.

We will watch the review with interest and I look forward to reading the final report. But whatever the Committee recommends ultimately, it is clear that modernisation of our electoral laws is overdue. While there is of course much else to keep it busy, we believe this should rank highly amongst the Government’s priorities.

You can read our full response to the Committee on our website here.

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How we set up a campaign in 12 working days

By Emma Hartley, Head of Campaigns, Electoral Commission

Today we have published our evaluation of the voter registration campaign we ran for the snap UK general election in June, but we also wanted to share some reflections on how we got a UK-wide campaign up and running quickly. 

Here is the story of how we went from election announcement to campaign launch in just 12 working days…

General election campaign blog - team image small

Electoral Commission campaigns team

18 April 2017: It’s a quiet Tuesday in the Electoral Commission campaigns team. We’re back in after the Easter break having just finished our voter registration campaign ahead of the 4 May local elections.

It’s 11am and The Prime Minister is making an unexpected announcement.

There will be a UK general election on 8 June. Seven weeks and two days from today.

The registration deadline will be 22 May, giving us just under five weeks to plan and execute a campaign. We arranged a conference call with our ad agencies before the Prime Minister finished her speech, kicking off the 12 working days to launch.

The campaign

With so little time to prepare we couldn’t re-think everything so we carried over tried-and-tested elements from previous campaigns, looking for quick ways to keep things fresh. The fact we had carried out thorough evaluations in the wake of our previous campaigns meant we had a really good idea of what would work.

Our focus was on cutting through to under-registered audiences including students and young people, recent home movers, UK citizens living overseas and armed forces personnel.

A standalone UK general election has the advantage of being relatively simple to communicate: people generally know how to vote and are keen to register as long as they know they need to do so. We used the unexpected nature of the poll to our advantage, pushing the importance of registering to vote in the limited time left.

We updated our existing TV ad – it would have been impossible to record a new one in two weeks. We also recorded two new radio ads for students and home movers and created animated GIFs to use on social media.

But our activity didn’t end with the registration deadline. From 23 May onwards we were focused on making sure people had the information they needed to cast their vote, through partners and stakeholders as well as our own social media channels.

Beyond the Electoral Commission

Our advertising was bolstered by social media partnerships with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Nextdoor, as well as PR work around key campaign milestones, getting us crucial additional publicity.

We called on our well-established network of local and central government, charities, corporate and voluntary organisations. We communicated through regular editions of Roll Call, our public awareness newsletter, and quickly produced resources for them to use, saving time for organisations across the country.

Stakeholder image

The Cabinet Office mobilised support across government departments to share registration messaging on social media and intranet channels. They also put registration reminders across gov.uk including at the end of passport and driving license applications. The Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular helped us access channels to reach armed forces personnel and UK citizens living overseas.

Through our partnership with Democracy Club we provided candidate and polling station information on our Your Vote Matters website. Our postcode lookup, which gave users details of candidates, how to contact their local authority, and in many cases their polling station, was used 390,000 times from 23 May.

How we worked

Every member of the team led a work stream, with daily update meetings keeping us on track.

With the amount of work we had to do we dived straight in to help each other out, fuelled by copious amounts of sugary snacks. We were collaborative in talking through issues since we didn’t have a long time to ponder the big decisions so it was important for us to put our heads together.

After a couple of intense weeks we were able to launch our overseas campaign on 28 April and our UK campaign on 8 May, which must be some kind of record.

What we know was a record was the size of the electorate – the biggest ever for a UK-wide poll with an estimated 46.8 million people able to vote.

Thank you to everyone who played a part in delivering this campaign at short notice – we couldn’t have done it without you.

You can read more information about our campaign on our website.

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Making your first time count

By Davide Tiberti, Research and Evaluation Manager at the Electoral Commission

High turnout is often regarded as an indicator of healthy democracies. Despite the surge at the last UK Parliamentary general election, turnout among young people in the UK remains low and some academics have highlighted how youth disengagement can generate a vicious circle: they argue that politicians can afford to neglect the interests of non-voters who in turn can feel let down and further disaffection sets in.

Several studies have shown the importance of first time voting, as evidence indicates that young citizens who fail to vote the first time they become eligible are less likely to vote throughout their lives.

This was a key driver behind the work of the Commission to promote registration and voting at the May 2017 elections in Scotland, where 16- and 17-year-olds were voting for the first time in a Scotland-wide set of council elections.

As part of our post-polls evaluation work, we also focused our attention on understanding this audience better by boosting the sample of 16-17s in our survey to find out what they think. The findings provide interesting insight into their views and electoral behavior.

What we know about the voting attitudes of 16- and 17-year-olds

Turnout among 16-17s is likely to have been in line with under 34s but lower than among over 35s.

While our public opinion data is not designed to  provide  turnout estimates by age group, we can use the findings in a comparative context to provide an indication of how turnout might have varied between age groups.

Our results suggest that turnout among 16-17s is likely to have been similar to that among 18-34s, but significantly lower than among those aged over 35: 51% of 16-17s claimed to have voted against 85% of those aged 55+.

Pic 1

They are motivated by the desire to express their view and create change rather than by civic duty.

Our surveys have constantly shown how younger people tend to be less likely than older age groups to say that civic duty motivate them to vote. Civic responsibility reasons still remain the top motivation for voting for all age groups – even the younger ones – except 16-17s whose most common reason was ‘to express a view’.

Significantly higher than all other age groups, 20% said they voted ‘to help create a change’.

Pic 2They use social media to access information on candidates but are the most likely to say they didn’t get enough information.

Two in five 16-17s (40%) disagreed with the statement ‘I had enough information on candidates to be able to make an informed decision in the Scottish Council Elections’, significantly more than 35-54s (26%) and 55+ (17%).

Among those 16-17s who agreed with that statement (52%), 33% said they access information on candidates on social media: this is the most popular channel for this age cohort while for the 18+ it remains leaflets/flyers from parties and candidates.

Family and friends have a strong influence on their propensity to turnout.

Interestingly, as we saw at the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016, participation by family and friends has a strong influence on turnout among 16-17s. Of those who voted in May, 95% said that their parents/guardians had voted and 50% said that ‘most of my friends voted’. Among those who did not turn out, only 50% of parents/guardian and 10% of ‘most friends’ voted.

Pic 3

They are less likely to be satisfied with the procedures for both registering and voting.

Our survey also shows that 16-17s year olds are less satisfied than the overall population when it comes to the procedure for voting (64% vs. 78%) and registering (76% vs. 88%). This is probably due to turnout and experience as first-time voters may need some time to become familiar with the process.

Nonetheless, this also highlights the need for the system to keep up with the changing expectations that society has of public services. Concerning electoral registration for example, technology and measures introduced over the last few years have brought positive results and it is important to build on these successes.

As the chart below shows, while satisfaction with the registration process is lower among 16- and 17-year-olds than the overall population (76% vs 88%), we note a significant increase since the Scottish Independence referendum (September 2014 when 16-17s were eligible for the first time) and after the introduction of online registration. This was launched in Scotland shortly after the referendum and is proving very successful, especially with young people who are more likely to need to register to vote.

Pic 4

They are the most likely to support measures to modernise the system.

In July the Commission argued for further modernisation of the registration process and we invited the UK’s governments to consider automatic enrolment to improve services to voters and relieve burden on local authorities.

We asked the public what they think about this and young people were more supportive of the measure: three quarters (74%) of 16-17s think that you should be automatically added to the electoral register when you receive your National Insurance Number, against 59% of all respondents (and only 38% of those aged 65+).

Pic 5

Next elections for 16-17s are in 2021

There are no further scheduled elections in which 16-17s in Scotland can vote in until 2021.

Because of the importance of first-time voting, the Commission has recommended that consideration needs to be given to how to engage young people who will reach the age of electoral majority in the next four years. The Commission will work with educational partners and councils to identify opportunities for supporting ongoing political literacy, but reforms are needed to deliver an electoral registration and voting process that meets the demands of our changing society.

All results and data tables from our public opinion surveys are available on our website (Research report library, Public opinion research).

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Why the annual canvass ensures you’re able to have a say in our democracy

You may have recently received, or will soon receive, a form asking you to check the accuracy of information held by elections staff at your local authority. This is part of a process known as the “annual canvass”, aimed at helping your local authority to keep its electoral register up to date.

What is the annual canvass?

The Electoral Registration Officer at your local authority is legally responsible for maintaining an accurate electoral register; the annual canvass, which takes place each year between 1 July and 30 November, allows for the correction of any omissions or errors.

The form is referred to as the household enquiry form. It’s not actually a registration form, but if you add new names of people living at the property that aren’t already on the form, your local authority will know to send them a separate registration form.

16 and 17 year olds can also be added to the form wherever you are in the UK, as although they may not yet be to vote, they can be added to the register in advance of their 18th birthday.

It is especially important to keep an eye out for the annual canvass form if you have recently moved into your property. Our research indicates that recent home movers are far less likely to be registered than those that have lived at the same address for a long time. Across Great Britain, only 27% of people living at their address for less than one year are registered to vote, compared to 96% of people who have been at their property for more than sixteen years.

Do I have to reply?

Yes. Electoral Registration Officers are legally obliged to undertake the annual canvass and to maintain accurate electoral registers. By completing and returning the form, you are helping them do this, but you are also ensuring that you are on the electoral register and therefore able to have your say at elections and referendums. If no response is received after three household enquiry forms are issued, the Electoral Registration Officer will make a visit to the household to confirm the details listed. If you persistently fail to respond you could be subject to a fine.  If you are not on the electoral register, you will also not be able to vote in any elections.

Why is there a box asking if I’m over 76?

The electoral register is used by HM Courts and Tribunals Service to determine members of the public eligible for jury service. Those over the age of 76 are not required to undertake jury service, and the council provides this information to identify those eligible and ineligible.

Can I register to vote at any time of the year?

Of course! You can always register to vote at any point throughout the year either by applying online via www.gov.uk/register-to-vote or by requesting a form from the Electoral Registration Officer at your local authority.

Since the introduction of individual elector registration in 2014, each person is now responsible for their own registration, rather than a designated “head of the household” as used to be the case. This means that others in your household can no longer register you, you must do this yourself.

It’s a simple process, but if you need a hand there’s lots of helpful information about registering to vote on our website www.yourvotematters.co.uk

Melanie Davidson, Head of Support and Improvement at the Electoral Commission

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