The Electoral Commission

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

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Our role in elections and referendums

On this page you can read about what we do to support well-run elections and referendums in the UK.

Elections in Great Britain

Elections in Great Britain are run by independent Returning Officers (ROs) based in each local authority area.

We give ROs guidance about how to deliver well-run elections and monitor how well they perform against performance standards.

Elections in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for running elections.

We are currently developing standards with the Chief Electoral Officer for how well-run elections should be delivered in Northern Ireland.

Find out more on the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland website

Referendums

For referendums in the UK we look at the way the proposed referendum question is worded to make sure it is easy for voters to understand.

Read our guidelines for assessing referendum questions

By law, we must comment on the intelligibility of UK, national and regional referendum questions, and some local government referendum questions. This is a requirement of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

In this context, we mean referendums where voters are asked to vote on a proposal that government has put forward.

At this type of referendum, voters are given a ballot paper that contains the question or questions and at least two possible responses to choose from. How many responses voters can vote for depends on the voting system used at that referendum.

We have developed these guidelines to:

  • help us assess how intelligible a proposed question is
  • help people draft intelligible referendum questions

In this context, ‘question’ includes the question, the responses, and any statement that comes immediately before the question.

Guidelines for assessing referendum questions

A referendum question should present the options clearly, simply and neutrally.

It should be:

  • easy to understand
  • to the point
  • unambiguous

It should avoid:

  • encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another
  • misleading voters

Checklist

We will use the following checklist to help us assess how intelligible a question is.

  • Is the question written in plain language? That is, language that:
    • uses short sentences (around 15 to 20 words)
    • is simple, direct and concise
    • uses familiar words, and avoid jargon or technical terms that would not be easily understood by most people
  • Is the question written in neutral language, avoiding words that suggest a judgement or opinion, either explicitly or implicitly?
  • Is the information contained in the question factual, describing the question and the options clearly and accurately?
  • Does the question avoid assuming anything about voters’ views?

Contact

If you have any questions or feedback about these guidelines, you can email us at referendumquestion@electoralcommission.org.uk.


For UK-wide referendums the Chair of the Electoral Commission, or someone they appoint, will be the Chief Counting Officer, who is responsible for certifying and announcing the result of the referendum.

The Chief Counting Officer has the power to give general or specific directions to Counting Officers relating to the discharge of their functions in the referendum.

Public awareness work

We run public awareness campaigns in the run-up to elections and referendums to make sure people know:

  • when the polls are taking place
  • how to register to vote and by when they need to register in order to be able to vote
  • how to vote in the polls

Reporting on elections

Each year we publish reports on how well elections were run and make recommendations to improve future elections. We also publish reports following referendums.

Read our past election and referendum reports

We also publish information about what parties, candidates and campaigners received in donations and spent on campaigning ahead of a poll.

Find out more about donations and spending at elections and referendums

Roles and responsibilities