Introduction

This report looks at how the May 2021 elections in England were run, how voters and campaigners found taking part, and what lessons can be learned for the future. 

On 6 May Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) took place in England. Most local authorities had local government elections and some areas had Combined Authority Mayor and local mayoral elections. In London, people could vote for the Mayor of London and London Assembly members. Many of these polls had been postponed from 2020. 

This was one of the most complex sets of polls held in recent times, with the additional challenges presented by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Even with these challenging circumstances people had high levels of satisfaction with the process of registering to vote and voting, and were confident that they were well run. 

Turnout across the different elections in May 2021 was similar to comparable elections in previous years, suggesting that concerns about Covid-19 did not stop voters from taking part. 

Changes that were put in place by electoral administrators and the Government helped to support and reassure voters. People were confident that they could vote safely at the elections, and the overwhelming majority were able to vote using their preferred method. 

Campaigners adapted their activities in response to public health restrictions and were able to communicate with voters face-to-face, online and through printed material. 

Transparency about who is responsible for producing campaign material online remains important for voters, and new digital imprint requirements will help voters understand who is paying to target them online at elections in future. 

The experience of these polls has again highlighted concerns about the resilience and capacity of electoral administration structures in the UK, which are coupled with the challenges of delivering elections within an outdated and increasingly complex electoral law framework. 

We will work in partnership with the electoral community, the Government and local authorities to develop and deliver proposals to support resilient electoral services for the future. 

Voting at the elections summary

This was one of the most complex sets of polls held in recent years, with the additional challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In March 2020, due to rising concern about the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Government postponed the local elections that had been scheduled for May 2020, until May 2021. 

This meant that on 6 May 2021 there were: 

  • Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections across England (except for London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire) 
  • Local government elections in most areas of England 
  • Combined Authority Mayor elections in some areas 
  • Local mayoral elections in some areas 
  • Mayor of London and London Assembly elections in London 

Some voters had multiple elections using different voting systems. In Bristol and Liverpool, for example, there were four different scheduled elections using two different voting systems. In both areas, local elections used the first past the post voting system, and PCC, Local Authority Mayoral and Combined Authority Mayoral elections used the supplementary vote system. 

A number of authorities also needed to hold by-elections and local referendums on the same day, adding to the complex picture for voters in those areas. 

During the summer and early autumn of 2020, the Electoral Commission worked with and consulted electoral administrators, political parties and governments across Great Britain to identify a shared set of high-level objectives for delivering successful elections in the current public health environment. These objectives were used to assess and test different options for supporting voters, campaigner and electoral administrators, and to identify and manage significant risks to successful delivery of the elections. We have also used them to inform our research, analysis and reporting on these polls. 

Returning Officers put in place new procedures in polling stations based on guidance from public health bodies and the Electoral Commission to comply with public health regulations and guidelines and to ensure that voters could be confident that they could vote safely. Voters who didn’t want to vote in person at the polling station could also choose to cast their vote by post or appoint a proxy. 

To make sure everyone knew about the different voting options available to them and to reassure people that voting in person would be a safe experience, we – along with local authorities – took a lead role in communicating these messages before the elections. This covered a range of topics including how to find your polling station, options for casting your vote and how to get help at the polling station. 

Our voter registration campaign ran from 9 March until the application deadline on 19 April. Our ads directed people to the gov.uk/registertovote service and were promoted across TV, video on demand, radio, digital audio, out-of-home billboards, social media and digital display. 

In England, there were 852,830 applications to register during our campaign between 9 March and 19 April. A total of 18.3 million people were registered to vote in the local elections and 14.5 million in the county council elections in England. There were 32.1 million people registered for the PCC elections and 6.2 million for the Mayor of London elections. 

Voters continue to have positive views about how the election was run

People had high levels of satisfaction with the process of registering to vote and voting, even with the challenging circumstances of these polls taking place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our research shows that: 

  • 87% of people across England1  and 88% of people in London were satisfied with the process of registering to vote. This is consistent with levels of satisfaction reported by people after the most recent comparable elections held in 2016 
  • 94% of people across England and 92% in London were satisfied with the process of voting. This is an increase from 2016 when satisfaction ranged from 82% at English PCC elections to 86% in London 
  • more experienced voters are more confident and satisfied with registering to vote and voting than first time voters 

Three-quarters of people said they were confident that the elections were well-run; however, at least one in 10 were not. Although this is similar to the 2016 PCC elections in England (73%), it is lower than the proportion of people in 2016 who were confident that the English local elections (82%) and elections in London (85%) were well-run. 

When we asked people why they were not confident that the May 2021 elections were well run there were some differences between voters in England and London, with voters in London more likely to identify concerns about Covid-19 and dislike of the voting system used. 

Reasons given by voters in England who were not confident elections well-run  Reasons given by voters in London who were not confident elections well-run 
  • Wasn’t enough information about the candidates (29%)
  • Do not think it was safe for people to vote at polling stations because of Covid-19 (27%) 
  • [Information] about the elections (19%)
  • Wasn’t enough information about the candidates (21%)
  • Candidates didn’t canvass/have contact with people (18%). 
  • Don’t like the voting system (20%) 
  • Did not trust that the votes were counted accurately (17%), 
  • Wasn’t enough information about the elections (20%)
  • Did not think it was safe for people to vote at polling stations because of Covid-19 (16%) 
 
  • Did not think there was enough information about alternatives to voting at a polling station (16%)
 

We also saw that views about whether electoral fraud is a problem, and about the safety of voting, were consistent with other recent elections. Just over a quarter of people across England (28%) see electoral fraud as a problem, rising to 34% in London. This compares to the 26% of people across the UK who saw it as a problem after the 2019 UK general election. 

Voters continue to have positive views about how the election was run: breakdown

People were confident that they could vote using their preferred method

Although public health restrictions were in place at the time of the elections, people had a choice of how they cast their vote. They could choose to vote in person, by post or by proxy (asking someone to do so on their behalf).

Most people who voted were able to use their preferred method: 

  • 93% of people who voted across England and 91% of those who voted in London said they were able to use their preferred method of voting
  • first time voters and younger people aged 18 to 34 were less likely to say they were able to use their preferred method
  • 6% of voters across England and 8% in London said that they were not able to vote using their preferred method. Among this group, around a quarter said this was due to reasons related to Covid-19 (such as being worried about going to the polling stations and having to self-isolate), rising to around a third amongst those who generally prefer to vote in polling stations

Voters in polling stations were confident that they were safe places to vote

Across England and London, a number of different measures were in place to make sure that voting and working at polling stations was as safe as possible during the pandemic.

To support and advise on what changes should be made to voting in polling stations, we worked with public health experts across the UK to provide guidance for electoral administrators. 

We also produced resources for local authorities designed to help:

  • reassure the public that voting in person would be a safe experience
  • highlight the other ways to vote, for those vulnerable or concerned
  • encourage voters to start thinking about their preferred voting option early

Voters in polling stations were confident that they were safe places to vote: breakdown

People who didn’t want to go to a polling station had options for voting remotely

People who don’t want to vote in person at the polling station can apply to cast their vote by post or appoint a proxy. If their situation changes close to an election due to work or disability, people can appoint an emergency proxy up to 5pm on polling day to vote on their behalf. 
The law was changed ahead of these elections so that anyone who had to self-isolate close to polling day because they had tested positive for Covid-19, or had been in close contact to someone who had tested positive, could also appoint a proxy.

Remote voting information

Recommendation 1

Recommendation 1: Retain an emergency proxy option for isolating voters

Legislation introduced for these elections to allow emergency proxy votes for anyone who tested positive for Covid-19 or had to self-isolate helped to provide a safeguard for anyone whose circumstances changed close to the polls and ensure that they were not prevented from participating. Although the provision was not widely relied upon in practice, it was nevertheless an important safeguard to make sure that no one lost their ability to vote.

We recommend that the Government should ensure this option continues to be available if people are required to self-isolate as part of the public health response to Covid-19.

Voters in some areas found it harder to complete their ballot papers

Around nine in 10 voters said that it was easy to fill in their ballot paper, but some people said that they found it difficult. People who told us it was difficult said it was due to:

  • unclear instructions
  • the ballot paper being complex/confusing
  • confusion caused by voting in multiple elections
  • too many candidates

A quarter of people who had difficulties filling in their ballot paper in areas holding both local government and PCC elections said it was confusing that the elections used different voting systems. A third of people voting in London said that they found the two voting systems confusing. 

The percentage of rejected ballot papers at those elections using the supplementary vote (SV) electoral system in May 2021 was higher than at those elections using first past the post: 0.8% for the local government elections compared to 2.7% for the PCC and 4.3% for Mayor of London. This is consistent with the experience at previous polls. 

Voters in some areas found it harder to complete their ballot papers: breakdown

Recommendation 2

Recommendation 2: Ensure new ballot paper designs are tested before they need to be used by voters

Good ballot paper design is essential to help voters understand how to cast their votes without making errors. User testing with the public can help to identify potential usability problems and improve the design of ballot papers.

We recommend that the Greater London Returning Officer should test possible alternative design options for ballot papers for future Mayor of London elections, including two-column designs. We stand ready to provide technical support to this work, drawing on our extensive experience of user testing ballot papers and other voter-facing materials.

overview

There was a record 20 candidates for the Mayor of London election, and 249 candidates stood for election to the London Assembly. This was more than at the last elections in 2016, when there were 12 and 205 candidates respectively. A total of 145 candidates contested the PCC elections in England, less than in 2016 when there were 169 candidates.

Campaigners communicated with voters about a complex range of elections held in May 2021, including polls that had been postponed from the previous year. They also adapted their activities in response to public health restrictions because of the pandemic.

Some candidates and agents get support from local or regional groups of their political party. This year, these local political party associations supported campaigns across a bigger range of elections than usual. This added a further layer of complexity as associations helped manage a wider range of campaign messages, spending limits and rules than they would normally do in one campaign period. 

All of this meant it was not straightforward for campaigners to plan and deliver their activities at these elections. 

The changing public health context caused uncertainty for campaigners

Campaigners were able to engage with voters while following public health regulations and guidance

Processes for submitting nominations prioritised access and safety

Recommendations 

Recommendation 3: Review subscriber requirements for nominating candidates

The requirement to collect signatures from subscribers ensures that candidates have some level of local support, and is intended to deter frivolous candidates. The number of subscribers required should be proportionate to the degree of risk relating to different types of elections and elected offices.

We recommend that the Government should review whether the range of current subscriber requirements are proportionate for different elected offices, taking into account evidence from this year’s polls and conclusions from our Standing for Election review in 2015.
 

Regulators strengthened collaboration during the election period

For the May 2021 elections, we worked with regulator partners to run an online public awareness campaign and encourage voters to find more information from a new section of our website. The campaign aimed to encourage people to think more carefully about political campaign adverts they see online, and it provided information about which regulators or other organisations they could contact if they had concerns.

Evaluation of the campaign showed that over 7.6 million people saw our adverts on websites and social media platforms. The number of people who clicked through to find more information from the adverts was encouraging, and provides a good foundation for further awareness-raising activity at future elections. 

A group of representatives from 3 met regularly throughout the election period to share issues. This initiative built on a regulators’ forum that we have co-ordinated since 2016. Regular discussions during the campaign period allowed the regulators to develop a greater understanding of their roles in helping to support public confidence in elections. We will continue to work with other regulators during election periods to strengthen this type of collaboration for future polls. 

A voter placing his vote into a ballot box in a polling station

Delivering the elections introduction

Our evidence shows that the May 2021 polls were well-run. Voters and campaigners reported high levels of satisfaction and confidence, and there were only a small number of issues that had an impact on their experience in some areas. Our research shows:

  • 94% of people across England and 92% in London were satisfied with the process of voting
  • three-quarters of people said they were confident that the elections were well-run
  • nine in 10 candidates were confident the elections were well run

For Returning Officers and electoral administrators, however, these elections presented unique and difficult challenges, and their considerable effort and commitment enabled the polls to be delivered successfully. 
 

The capacity and resilience of electoral administration teams and suppliers are significant risks for future polls

recommendation 4

Recommendation 4: Build resilience and capacity for electoral administration

We have repeatedly highlighted concerns about the resilience and capacity of electoral administration structures in the UK, which are coupled with the challenges of delivering elections within an outdated and increasingly complex electoral law framework.

We will work in partnership with the electoral community, the Government and local authorities to develop and deliver proposals to support resilient electoral services for the future. Through the Electoral Advisory and Coordination Board, which includes senior Returning Officers, electoral administration professional bodies and government officials, we will establish a programme of activity to gather evidence about the challenges facing electoral administration teams and identify solutions to address them

Late confirmation of legislation and interventions made it harder for Returning Officers to plan in some areas

On 8 February 2021 the Minister for the Constitution confirmed the Government’s formal position that these elections would go ahead in May. The Cabinet Office delivery plan for the elections was published in early February and included £31 million funding to support Returning Officers to secure venues and staffing and run Covid-19 secure elections. It also highlighted the Government’s plans to legislate to extend the availability of proxy voting for people who were required to self-isolate and to simplify nomination requirements for candidates at the May polls.

In addition to our usual core suite of guidance and resources to support administrators with the delivery of elections, we worked with public health bodies, the UK Government and the electoral community to develop and publish supplementary guidance to support the delivery of Covid-19 safe elections. 

The guidance was issued on a rolling basis from September 2020 and was informed by both the requirements of administrators and the latest expert advice from public health bodies. It was kept under review throughout the election period, and was updated to reflect the legislative changes to the nominations and proxy voting process as a result of Covid-19.

Many electoral administrators said that they found that uncertainty about the elections made it difficult for them to plan effectively. Just under nine in 10 administrators (88%) who responded to our survey after the elections said that they felt the initial uncertainty about whether the elections would go ahead made it difficult for them to plan. 

Waiting for legislation to be laid/enacted and then for corresponding guidance/documentation delayed plans and procedures being put in place to deal with those changes. This caused additional stress and uncertainty and added to an already heavy workload

The particular circumstances that led to the development and introduction of changes to electoral law ahead of the May 2021 polls were unprecedented and unavoidable. However, the timing of these changes created additional challenges and risks for the delivery of the elections. It affected when Electoral Commission guidance and resources to support the delivery of the polls, such as amended nomination forms, could be provided, and when electoral administrators could implement them. 

issues with the use as schools as polling stations

Election teams updated count processes to support social distancing while maintaining transparency

In providing their feedback on the elections, electoral administrators told us about the challenges they faced in setting up and managing counts:

  • 46% of administrators responding to our survey said they had difficulties recruiting count staff for the May 2021 elections
  • 42% either strongly agreed or agreed that the Covid-19 restrictions made it difficult for candidates and agents to observe at the count

We had to move count venues due to our current venue being used as a Vaccination Centre – that came with challenges to ensure the new venue met all the requirements.

We had to operate two count venues to enable social distancing which made the count organisation massively more complicated and added to our workloads.

Having to use less count staff in order to facilitate social distancing made the count process take much longer than normal.

Given the need to comply with regulations and guidelines about social distancing that were in place in May 2021, Returning Officers and electoral administrators needed to adapt their plans and processes to maintain transparency at count venues. Changes included introducing Perspex screens in front of count tables, agreeing with agents to limit the number of people attending the count, or providing video feeds of the count and adjudication processes for agents and observers to view away from the count tables. 

The adjudication of doubtful ballot papers was challenging due to the COVID restrictions. It was difficult to observe social distancing between the Returning Officer and agents whilst still allowing agents to see the ballot papers.

Most candidates said they were confident that the elections were well run and content with the efficiency of the count and verification processes. However, some candidates were less satisfied with their ability to observe and scrutinise the count.

We became aware of issues at three counts where errors were made which has led us to conclude that the Returning Officers5  did not fully meet our performance standards:

  • An error was discovered during the count for a directly-elected mayoral election. When counting second preference votes it was discovered that the votes of two candidates with the same surname and first initial had been reported the wrong way round at the end of the first count. This meant one candidate was recorded as having fewer votes than they had actually received and vice versa. The issue was identified prior to the result declaration, and it did not impact the final result. 
  • The second error was that the votes for two candidates in one ward were mixed up. This meant one candidate was recorded as receiving more votes than they had actually received and another less. The issue had no impact on the overall result. The third error also involved the mix up of results for two candidates, however in this case the error resulted in the incorrect candidate being declared as the winner. There has been a successful election petition in this case.

While recognising the pressures faced by Returning Officers and their teams and the challenging circumstance of the combination of elections and changes to count arrangements due to Covid-19, it is important that voters, candidates and political parties can have confidence in the accuracy of election counting processes and results.