Costs of running a UK-wide poll published for first time

The facts and figures

The full cost of the May 2011 referendum on the UK Parliamentary voting system was just over £75 million, the Electoral Commission can reveal today.

This is the first time a report has been published on the costs of running a national poll and the first time the Electoral Commission has overseen the process for managing those costs.

The total amount claimed by Counting Officers – those responsible for conducting the referendum poll, including counting the votes in their area – for fees and charges, was around £58 million. The UK Government had originally expected them to claim nearly £80 million.

To support greater transparency, the Electoral Commission is calling on the Government to publish full details of the costs of recent elections, including the European Parliamentary elections in 2009, the UK Parliamentary general election in 2010, and the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and commit to doing the same for all future polls.

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission and Chief Counting Officer at the referendum, said:

The public have a right to know how their money is spent at major polls, and we’ve been able to set this out for the first time today. These figures show the Government’s original estimates of the cost of the 2011 referendum were too high – by more than £20 million – so it’s important that lessons are learnt.

The Government should publish full details of the costs of recent and future polls as we have done for the May 2011 referendum. This will enable the people running the polls – Returning and Counting Officers – to use the information to ensure they are delivering best value for voters.

The Government should also accept and implement the principle of agreeing funding legislation for polls by six months before polling day – rather than just 4 ½ weeks in this case- to allow for proper planning.

The report highlights a number of recommendations for changes to the way polls are funded and administered, for example:

  • Accounting Officers for the European Parliament elections and the independence referendum in Scotland should decide on an appropriate and cost-effective process for obtaining assurance that costs reimbursed have been properly incurred.
  • The relevant government and Accounting Officer should develop better estimates of the amounts Returning Officers can claim for each poll

The UK Government has committed to undertake a review of the ‘fees and charges’ framework for major polls; the scope, terms of reference and timescale for this need to be published as soon as possible, and the review’s recommendations must be implemented in time for the June 2014 European elections. It should address all the recommendations in the Commission’s report.

The Electoral Commission will undertake further analysis of the figures in today’s report, to identify areas of expenditure for Returning/Counting Officers to focus on when trying to secure best value. We will also further analyse the most efficient procedures for managing the count at major polls, with a view to identifying more accurately the resources required.

For further information and/or interview requests contact Rosemary Davenport, Media Relations Officer:

    Extra notes

    Notes to editors

    • The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament. Our aim is integrity and public confidence in the UK’s democratic process. We regulate party and election finance and set standards for well-run elections and are responsible for the conduct and regulations of referendums held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000).
    • The full report can be viewed here (PDF)
    • The original estimated total cost for the 2011 referendum on the UK Parliamentary system was more than £100m. This figure was established in discussions between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. The breakdown of final costs and the original estimates includes:
      • Polling station costs (£27.3m against £31.6m estimate)
      • Postal voting (£10.6m against £16.7m)
      • Polling cards (£6.3m against £17.2m)
      • Count costs (£6.8m against £5.8m)
    • An Accounting Officer is the person responsible for the overall financing of a referendum or election, including signing the final accounts, and for the propriety and regularity of finances, and the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of how resources are used. A Returning Officer is the person responsible for conducting an election in a particular area and declaring the result of poll. A Counting Officer is the person responsible for conducting a referendum poll and counting the votes in a particular area.
    • The Commission has been able to publish full costs for this referendum because we were given responsibility for administering the process by which COs were paid their fees, and reimbursed for their costs in running the referendum. Peter Wardle, the Chief Executive of the Commission, was the Accounting Officer for this referendum. At other polls the Accounting Officer is typically a senior civil servant.
    • Following the usual framework for funding national polls, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 allowed Regional Counting Officers and Counting Officers to recover their costs in respect of the referendum, and to be paid a personal fee for their work on delivering the poll. The UK Government retained responsibility for establishing the amounts that Regional Counting Officers and Counting Officers could recover.