The Electoral Commission

The independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK

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6. Balancing resources for electoral registration

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Balancing resources for electoral registration

We want to work with the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and EROs across the UK to review the balance of funding and resources for EROs so that election-specific activity can be appropriately resourced as well as ongoing activities such as the annual canvass of properties.

We will continue to evaluate pilot schemes to test new approaches to carrying out annual canvass activities, and will work with EROs and the UK Government to consider the implications of those evaluations for the future of the annual canvass.

Our previous reports on the implementation of IER have highlighted that the introduction of online registration means that people are more likely to apply to register when they are motivated by forthcoming elections, rather than in response to contact from the ERO during the annual canvass period. Our analysis from 2017 shows again that a significant number of people chose to apply to register to vote directly in response to both the May elections and the June general election.

EROs were required to process significant numbers of electoral registration applications during April and May 2017, which were unexpected and unplanned in terms of both their volume and timing. While Returning Officers for UK Parliamentary elections are funded directly by the UK Government for the costs involved in administering the election, EROs are funded entirely by the local authority which has appointed them. This means that EROs across the UK will have been required to draw on their local annual budgets to deal with the impact of an unplanned national electoral event.

We want to work with the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and EROs across the UK to review the balance of funding and resources for EROs so that election-specific activity can be appropriately resourced as well as ongoing activities such as the annual canvass of properties. We recognise that there are also ongoing questions about the effectiveness, efficiency and timing of the current annual canvass process, and we are also working with EROs and the Cabinet Office to evaluate pilot schemes to trial different approaches.

2016 canvass pilots

During the 2016 canvass, EROs for three local authority areas tested the effectiveness of two different approaches to the household canvass. Every ERO in Great Britain is currently required to conduct a canvass of households each year. The legislation currently requires each household to be sent a Household Enquiry Form (HEF) and EROs must chase for a response to that form (even where no changes are required) employing at least two reminders and one household visit.

There are significant cost implications from this exercise and much of the time and resource goes towards getting responses from households where there are no changes to the registered electors. These pilots were designed to test the effectiveness of different, less resource intensive approaches to canvassing.

The processes tested were:

  • Discernment - using data to determine canvass approach (Birmingham and South Lakeland): this approach started with a data matching exercise between the electoral register and other locally held data. Electors who could be matched were then canvassed in a more light touch way than those who could not be matched.
  • Using Household Notification Letters (HNLs) in place of HEFs (Ryedale): HNLs are similar to HEFs in that they list the registered electors at a property but unlike a HEF they do not require a response (and EROs are not legally require to chase for one). In this pilot some households were contacted once by HNL with no follow up reminders. Households could respond to the HNL either online or by phone.


Our analysis is limited by the small number of pilot areas in 2016 and by the small size of the control groups used. However, the data we have received suggests that the current, legislated approach to canvassing was more effective than the piloted approaches at capturing population movement and therefore maintaining accurate and complete electoral registers. However, there were variations across the different methods tested.

As Chart 2 below shows, for South Lakeland and Ryedale there was a substantial difference between the level of new electors added and redundant entries removed from the registers depending on whether the existing or pilot approach to canvassing was used.

Chart 2: 2016 canvass pilots results - additions and deletions

Chart showing additions and deletions following 2016 canvass pilots

Control group - Households in this group were contacted according to the traditional canvass method.

Treatment group – Households in this group were canvassed according to the process that was being piloted. The processes piloted were:

Discernment model: ERO attempted to match registered electors with locally held data.
Households where all electors could be positively matched were contacted with a Household Notification Letter (HNL) which, unlike the traditional Household Enquiry Form (HEF), only requires recipients to respond if changes have occurred within that household.

HNL model: This process replaces the HEF with HNLs which does not require a response. on-response was therefore treated as confirrmation that the details were still correct.

The results for Birmingham, which tested the same model as South Lakeland, show a smaller gap in additions between control and treatment group and similar level of deletions. The difference between Birmingham and South Lakeland is likely to be due to the accuracy of the data-matching conducted at the start of the process by the two authorities.

The planned set of pilots in 2017 should provide a greater range of higher quality information and will therefore allow for a more robust evaluation.

These limited initial pilot schemes suggest that the tested processes have the potential to generate significant savings compared with the current canvass approach. This is clearly an important and positive factor for the local authorities which are required to fund electoral registration activities.

However, in any final assessment of changes to the current canvass requirements this cost reduction would need to be weighed against the findings on how well the possible replacement processes would maintain the registers. For example, over time, lower levels of additions to and deletions from the registers would have a detrimental, cumulative impact on the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers as home movement would not be picked up.

Any new high profile poll would have the potential to counteract this deterioration by generating interest and therefore applications. However, we note above that managing activity ahead of a major poll is already a challenge and this challenge would arguably be even greater if the registers were less up-to-date at the start of the election period.

As noted above the data from 2016, covering only three local authorities, does not enable firm conclusions to be drawn either for or against the piloted changes and a further, larger set of pilots will take place during the 2017 canvass. The Commission will also evaluate these pilots and will publish our findings in June 2018.

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