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.
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.
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.