Report on the May 2022 Scottish council elections

Summary

This report looks at how the May 2022 Scottish council elections were run, how voters and campaigners found taking part, and what lessons can be learned for the future. We have reported separately on elections held this year in England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

On 5 May 2022 elections were held across Scotland’s 32 councils. Voters used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system to elect their councillors, numbering the candidates in order of preference. 

We found that the vast majority of voters were satisfied with the process of voting and almost all were able to use their preferred method. Polling station voters felt confident that they could vote safely in person. 

Most voters said they found it easy to fill in their ballot paper. However, while the level of spoilt ballots across Scotland has declined since the 2017 council elections, they increased in some wards and further targeted action is needed to address this.

Campaigners felt able to get their views across to voters, but many voters said they needed more information on the candidates in order to make an informed choice when they came to vote.

Some candidates reported experiences of intimidation and abuse at these elections, which is not acceptable. We will work with the UK’s governments, Police Scotland and the wider electoral community to make sure we understand what is driving candidate abuse and intimidation, and to ensure this issue is addressed as a matter of urgency. 

While the elections were well-run the resilience of electoral administration teams remains a concern. Adequate staffing for polling stations proved a challenge in many areas. 

We found that Returning Officers took all the necessary steps set out in law to support disabled voters at the poll, and our public opinion research found increased levels of satisfaction amongst disabled voters. 

The Scottish Government has committed to a public consultation on ideas for future electoral reform in Scotland in the coming months. We hope that our report helps to inform that debate.

Overview

On 5 May 2022, elections were held to Scotland’s 32 councils. Voters used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system to elect their councillors, numbering the candidates in order of preference. 

Six wards out of the 355 across Scotland were uncontested, meaning that the number of candidates nominated was equal to or fewer than the total number of seats available. In these wards no poll went ahead and the nominated candidates were declared elected on polling day. In three of these wards the number of candidates was less than the number of seats available and, following 5 May, by-elections took place to fill the outstanding vacancies. 

A total of 4,222,332 people were registered to vote at the council elections. 

Voters continue to have positive views about how elections are run

After each election we ask members of the public who were eligible to vote for their views on voting and elections. This enables us to understand whether there have been changes in the views of voters between comparable sets of elections.

People were confident that they could vote using their preferred method

At each election people can vote in person, by post or by proxy (asking someone they trust to vote on their behalf). If a voter’s situation changes close to polling day (for work or health reasons) then they may be eligible to appoint an emergency proxy up to 5pm on polling day.

Ahead of the 2021 elections, the law was changed so that anyone who had to self-isolate close to polling day because they had tested positive for Covid, or had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive, could also appoint an emergency proxy. This change remained in place for the 2022 elections.

In February 2022, the majority of Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) in Scotland wrote out to all households to remind them of who was registered to vote at that address, and whether they had a postal or proxy vote in place.

Recommendation 1

Recommendation 1

We continue to recommend that the Scottish Government work with the electoral community to explore ways to extend the provisions for emergency proxies to cover carers.

Voters said that they found the ballot paper easy to fill in but concerns remain about levels of rejection in some wards

Nearly all voters (95%) said that they found the ballot paper easy to fill in, with 4% saying that they found it difficult. People aged 25-34 were the most likely to say that they found the ballot paper difficult to fill in (9%).

Work continued to support recently enfranchised voters to participate

The Commission continued to work in partnership with the electoral community and Scottish civic society to support young people and qualifying foreign nationals to engage in the elections.

To encourage schools to run political education sessions and raise awareness amongst young people, we worked with partners across the education sector to run Welcome to Your Vote week in January 2022. Ahead of the awareness week, the Commission launched new education resources, including lesson plans, a template assembly on the council elections, and short interactive activities. We also delivered information sessions for teachers and care providers working with young people, in partnership with West of Scotland Development Education Centre (WOSDEC) and the Care Inspectorate.

The Commission worked with a number of partners to distribute information to qualifying foreign nationals, including consulates, regional equality councils and charities. In collaboration with EROs and civil society organisations, we ran Welcome to Your Vote Day on 10 March, providing communication resources to support partners to raise awareness and running online information events.

Civil society organisations which work with a range of under-registered audiences have highlighted a frustration that work to increase registration is only carried out ahead of elections. Whilst we have strong relationships with organisations across the third sector, there is a high level of staff turnover in charities, and a shift towards ongoing engagement work would reduce the need to rebuild relationships ahead of each election.

The Electoral Commission will embed work to increase registration amongst under-registered groups outside of election periods. Existing partnerships will be maintained and strengthened through ongoing collaboration, and the Commission will scope opportunities for new partnerships to reach under-registered groups.

Introduction

A total of 2,548 candidates were nominated to contest the 1,226 councillor vacancies at the 2022 council elections. This was broadly equivalent to the numbers standing in 2017 (2,572).

There were 357 independent candidates standing at the election and 2,191 candidates representing 26 different political parties (four more parties than in 2017).

There were a number of changes to the campaign laws for candidates at these elections which included a requirement to report donations for the first time and the need to include an imprint on any digital candidate campaign material. The Electoral Commission provided guidance for candidates and agents on the laws in force at these elections.

To inform our report we carried out research with candidates to understand their experience of standing at the elections, and we also talked to parties about the process.

Campaigners were largely able to engage with voters

Just over two-thirds of candidates who responded to the survey (69%) felt that they were able to effectively get their views across to voters. This is a significant increase from the 43% who expressed that view at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.

Recommendation 2

Recommendation 2

Action is needed to tackle and prevent abuse and intimidation, and to ensure candidates and campaigners can participate freely in our democratic processes.

We will work with the UK’s governments, Police Scotland and the wider electoral community to make sure we understand what is driving candidate abuse and intimidation, and to ensure this issue is addressed as a matter of urgency.

Candidates had confidence in the election process

The vast majority (94%) of candidates who responded to the survey were confident that the Scottish council elections were well run. Almost two-thirds (64%) said they were very confident, and no respondents said they were not confident.

The majority of candidates who responded to our survey were satisfied with all aspects of the nomination process:

  • the vast majority (96%) agreed that the rules for becoming a candidate were easy to understand and follow
  • over nine in 10 (94%) agreed that the nomination process was well run
  • 85% of respondents agreed that they found the pre-nomination checks helpful, compared to 1% who disagreed, and 14% who said they neither agreed nor disagreed/didn’t know.
  • of those that interacted with their elections teams or needed to access their local authority offices, the majority (87%) were satisfied with their ability to do so

Most candidates understood the campaign spending laws

The majority of respondents to our candidate survey agreed that the law around spending, donations and personal expenses was clear, although the proportions were smaller than those who found the nomination process clear.

  • three-quarters (76%) agreed that the law on election spending and reporting was clear
  • 71% found the law on donations and how to check permissibility to be clear
  • almost three-quarters (73%) found the law about personal expenses clear
  • awareness about expenses related to disability was far lower than self-reported awareness about the general spending and reporting law
  • just half (51%) of respondents said that they knew that expenses relating to a candidate’s disability did not count towards the spending limit

Recommendation 3

Recommendation 3

The Scottish Government should consider electronic submission of spending returns as part of their electoral reform agenda.

There was an increasing demand for advice and guidance from candidates

The Electoral Commission and electoral administrators faced an increased demand from candidates for advice and guidance on the nomination process and the spending laws. Particular demands came from independent candidates and those representing smaller and more recently registered political parties.

“As you would expect, independent candidates required more support than those standing for political parties, which resulted in an increased number of calls from independent candidates requiring additional information and support” Electoral Administrator

“Smaller parties had poor paperwork, did not engage with the office early in the process, and frequently had to be reminded at deadlines” Electoral Administrator

Section introduction

Our evidence shows that the May 2022 polls, including electoral registration services, were well-run. Voters and campaigners reported high levels of satisfaction and confidence in both the voting process and the count. However, electoral administrators have reported that diminishing council resources are increasing pressures on the delivery of elections.

The capacity of election teams continues to be stretched

While Returning Officers and their staff reported fewer challenges than in 2021, at the height of the pandemic, concerns were still raised about their ability to continue to deliver elections with diminishing resources.

Counts were delivered well across Scotland

Due to the complexities of counting the votes and calculating the results at an election which uses the type2 of the Single Transferable Vote system of voting in place for council elections, all counts in Scotland were conducted electronically.

The e-Counting equipment, including the software, is procured nationally by the Scottish Government on behalf of the 32 Returning Officers.

As highlighted above, candidates had high levels of satisfaction with the count process. Electoral Commission representatives who attended counts across Scotland did not have any concerns about the delivery or transparency of the counts.

Counts were delivered well across Scotland points

The Electoral Management Board continued to support consistency in the delivery of elections

The Electoral Management Board (EMB) has statutory responsibility for supporting the delivery of council elections in Scotland, including a power to direct Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers in respect of their duties at these elections.

Directions issued by the Convener of the EMB at this election included timings for the dispatch of poll cards and postal votes and also for counts.

Electoral administrators and the wider electoral community continue to value the role that the EMB plays in providing support and advice for the delivery of local elections.

“Directions of the Convener of EMB invariably helpful and well timed.”

“Everything worked well. Directions were helpful without being overly prescriptive or heavy-handed.”

ROs improved the support available for disabled voters at these elections

The Electoral Commission has a specific legal duty3 to report on the steps taken by ROs to assist disabled people to vote at the election.

To inform our report we asked for information from Returning Officers, Electoral Registration Officers and polling station staff. We also looked at the views of disabled voters who responded to our public opinion research and gathered evidence from disability organisations.

ROs improved the support available for disabled voters at these elections points

Page history

First published:

Last updated: