Early confirmation of the scope of any change is important
The legislation allowing for the pilots was in place by March 2022. Returning Officers told us that, although there was no impact on the eventual running of the pilots, they would have preferred the details to be confirmed earlier. This would have avoided the need to carry out some preparations at risk. The practical impact in this case was offset by good communications between the pilot authorities and Welsh Government officials. This meant that there were no surprises in the legislation and that planning could continue before it was in place. However, this would be less manageable if the change applied to all local authorities across Wales.
Changes concerning the running of elections should be agreed and in place six months before the poll to allow for adequate implementation by electoral administrators. Planning for any future roll out of advance voting should ensure that at least that minimum period is available.
The local public awareness campaigns used a wide range of channels to reach potential voters
Some of the challenges in engaging the public in this type of change are set out above, and campaigns run by the pilot authorities should be considered against those limitations.
Returning Officers and their teams told us that they used a range of approaches to inform people about the pilots, specifically:
- Social media – mainly Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts
- Local radio adverts
- Household notification letters – these are letters sent out in February to confirm the registration details for each property in an area
- Local news articles and press releases
There were also other methods including council websites, billboards, post campaigns and ‘Promo’ or ‘Ad Vans’, which could be positioned in higher profile spots in the area. All of the pilots began their campaign in February in order to allow enough time to carry out a wide range of activities before the advance polling days. Information about the pilot was also featured on the poll cards in each area as required by the pilot legislation.
In our public opinion survey after the election we asked everyone who said they were aware of the pilot where they had seen information about it. The most common sources were ‘Council website’ (29%), ‘social media’ (21%), ‘leaflet/flyer from the council’ (16%) and ‘news website’ (15%).
When we asked people who had chosen to vote early where they found out about the pilot, the main answer was the poll card (38%). A fifth of voters (19%) were made aware by a leaflet or newsletter from the local authority and 15% said they found out from their friends and family.
We also asked people how easy it was to find information about different aspects of the election. The perceived ease of finding information on the advance voting option (41%) was lower than other aspects such as information on parties/candidates (59%) and information on what the election was about (64%).
The evidence suggests that some channels were more effective than others at reaching people. However, we cannot draw conclusions as the overall level of awareness was low and engagement with the pilots was primarily from more regular voters.
If this change is rolled out nationally it is likely that all of the channels used in the pilots would be important to spread awareness with different sections of the public. However, they should be supported by larger, national activity. A national campaign can use higher impact measures (such as TV), with consistent messaging across all local authorities and greater reach among the population as a whole. This would help to increase the likelihood of cut-through for the campaign messages beyond existing, regular voters.
The use of electronic registers was important to the smooth running of the pilots
The pilots each worked with the supplier Modern Democracy, using their system which provides electronic registers in the polling station on tablet devices. This allows for people to be marked as having voted and for registers for any area within the local authority to be accessed via a single device.
In the three pilots with a single advance voting centre, this avoided the need for large paper based copies of the full local authority register to be held in each centre and for individual voters to be quickly found on the register when they came to collect a ballot paper. This also allowed Returning Officers to efficiently manage one of the integrity challenges that comes with multiple polling days – the risk of double voting (an elector attempting to vote more than once). We are not aware of any issues with double voting in the pilots.
Returning Officers and their teams felt that the pilot could potentially have been delivered without the IT elements. This was particularly the case for Bridgend where advance voting was happening in usual, individual polling stations.
However, taking forward advance voting in one or more centralised locations per area without using electronic registers could put more pressure on Returning Officers and increase the risk of problems arising. The single-centre pilots reported that in the absence of the electronic registers it would have been a less good process for voters – and potentially very difficult for them to manage with higher turnout. It would have introduced challenges for administrators associated with the paper-heavy processes. This would have been a particular issue where advance voting is happening immediately before polling day as there would not be enough time to manage aspects of a fully paper-based process. For example, marked register data from advance voting centres would need to be transferred to the paper registers held in each ‘normal’ polling station. There is also the potential for other benefits to be realised from the use of electronic registers alongside supporting advanced voting including accuracy of records.
The hardware and software solution used in the pilots was a success – there were no significant problems on any of the polling days and more minor issues were quickly resolved. However, there are some lessons to be drawn from the pilots:
- Time for development and set up: the pilots were arranged to tight timescales and this included the work needed to develop the electronic registers system for the circumstances of the pilot. Additional time in this case would have made the process more comfortable but also potentially allowed for a smoother ‘back-end’ process for administrators through better integration with their existing electoral management software (EMS) systems. The tight timings lead to a functional, but not optimal, solution to linking the two systems. There were also some issues in managing two different piloting requirements between the single-centre approach and that taken in Bridgend. The requirements were not the same and more time to understand the differences would have helped to avoid some of the issues that needed to be dealt with during set up.
- Training and support: for a pilot, bespoke training is often put in place that may not be sustainable or needed in the event of a wider roll out. In this case many administrators felt that more training than necessary was provided for polling staff. Many polling station staff have existing full or part-time jobs. Asking them to attend training during work hours could therefore be unworkable for some. Some pilots also felt that there was an overly cautious approach to other set up work, such as operational testing. While they acknowledged it was much better to have too much than too little, they clearly felt that it could be scaled back in the event of a roll out.
The selection of venues was based on several considerations
For the three pilots using a single location, which was not usually a polling station, there were several factors considered when choosing the venue:
- Location: Returning Officers wanted venues which were central to the area, not just geographically but also in terms of transport links. A reasonable level of usual footfall was also recognised as a benefit, as was a venue which was already recognisable to people or where people may need to go to for a reason other than voting. Easy parking was also sought for those travelling from further afield.
- Accessibility: the venues needed to be fully accessible
- Security: the Returning Officer needed to be confident in either being able to store ballot boxes securely within the venue itself (the council offices in Torfaen and Caerphilly) or to be able to transport them safely and securely to another site between each polling day (Blaenau Gwent moved the boxes from the Learning Zone to the nearby council offices).
- Space: each centre needed to have sufficient space to set up a number of polling station desks and to manage the flow of voters effectively. The space required varied by the size of local authority (and therefore the likely number of voters) but also by the approach taken by Returning Officers. For example, Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent opted to use two desks in their centre while Caerphilly used six desks.
The number and location of venues used in each area should be carefully considered
The factors above make choosing suitable venues more challenging than selecting locations for standard polling stations as they limit the Returning Officers’ choices. In the pilots it was relatively easy to find a single venue in an area, but it could become more challenging to find a greater number.
There is no evidence from these pilots that the use of a single location in the local authority area significantly deterred voters who lived further away or had less easy access to the advance voting centre. However, this may be because of the low overall numbers of votes being cast early. In Blaenau Gwent, for example, the number of early votes across the different wards varied from one to eight. This is not enough variation to show a pattern. The advance voting option also mostly attracted engaged, regular voters whose tolerance for making longer or more complicated journeys will be greater than the average.
In addition, the pilot local authorities are relatively small, geographically, compared to many areas in Wales. If advance voting was being rolled out widely there would need to be consideration of how many venues were needed in each area and their locations, taking account of overall size and transport connections. This should also take account of anticipated turnout as a single venue can cope with low levels of well-distributed turnout but may struggle with much higher turnout including concentrations at specific times of day.
No complaints or negative feedback were received by Returning Officers about the locations of the centres in the pilots. We also received no comments on this aspect in our survey of candidates. However, there is potential for any future choice of venue to cause concerns among political parties and candidates. In any roll out, Returning Officers would need to ensure that they engage with local parties and candidates about the location(s). This process could be modelled on the existing approach to reviewing polling districts and polling places where the Returning Officers is required to follow a transparent process which involves proactively seeking views, publishing representations received and being clear on how decisions were reached.
Access to usual polling stations was also a challenge in Bridgend
Bridgend aimed to use their regular polling stations in the low turnout wards selected for the pilot. However, in several cases this was not straightforward as access was needed for three days rather than the usual one. Schools in particular, which often need to close during polling, were reluctant to shut for three days. The two school locations which usually house polling stations could not be used at these elections and temporary portable buildings were put in place instead. This added work for the elections team as these venues then need to be set up to ensure they are accessible, etc.
If the approach taken in Bridgend was to be used more widely and particularly if it was used across an entire local authority then there could be challenges in finding polling stations.
The days of the week chosen for advance voting could have an impact on ease of administration
The two approaches, of voting at the weekend before the poll and on the weekdays immediately ahead of polling day, were delivered without any significant issues. However, some of the administrators involved said that advance voting on the Tuesday and Wednesday before a Thursday election brought some additional pressures.
Firstly, it largely removes contingency time for dealing with issues arising on the advance voting days ahead of a Thursday polling day. As above, in the event of issues with the electronic marking of registers, it would have been difficult to fall back to the full paper process for the Thursday.
Secondly, polling on the Tuesday and Wednesday has more overlap with some of the usual activities that administrators need to complete ahead of a Thursday election. This puts additional pressure on core elections teams which are already under strain and are often relatively small, with limited capacity to absorb new demands on their time. The teams in the pilots managed this issue well but that was partly achieved by notable overtime for core staff. This was particularly the case for the Bridgend pilot where managing the opening of over 20 polling stations across three days required significant extra work.
In considering the use of advance voting in the future it would be crucial to ensure that core elections teams have the capacity and resilience to manage the additional requirements. Where teams are already under strain, any new demands on their time creates a risk to the running of the election. This should also take account of wider factors that could have an impact, such as more complicated polls.
Additional polling staff and some further training was needed
Many more staff were required in Bridgend where more sites for advance voting were available. In the single advance voting centres the numbers required were largely determined by the overall approach to managing the flow of voters, e.g. Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen used two polling station desks and Caerphilly used six.
This meant that overall numbers varied from six additional staff in Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen to 14 in Caerphilly and over 100 in Bridgend.
The single-centre pilots reported no issues with finding appropriate staff. They also felt that the number of staff was sufficient to manage the work on the advance voting days.
It was unsurprisingly more of a challenge for Bridgend. While they recruited enough staff for the advance stations it was not easy to do so, and they were sceptical that it would be possible to find sufficient staff if all of their polling stations had been open for three days. Many polling station staff have jobs, including in local government. They need to be released from those existing roles and the more days that are required, the more difficult that can be.
Bridgend used two shifts to manage the staff workload with each covering a morning or afternoon on the advance voting days (one shift then also worked the full Thursday polling day). Their approach also took account of some detailed logistical challenges, for example the same workers would close a station on the Tuesday evening as opened the same station on the Wednesday morning (and the same for the Wednesday to Thursday transition). This aimed to minimise any issues around access to sites and/or equipment.
Across all the pilots, as the job was very similar to a standard election, the approach to training was also close to that normally employed for polling staff. Some further training (separate from the IT training mentioned above) was made available to staff in the advance voting centres to address the specific pilot challenges (such as managing marked registers across the days, and the sealing of ballot boxes). In all cases the pilots told us that this was a manageable additional requirement.
There were no issues with the integrity of the poll in pilot areas
There are several potential integrity challenges presented by managing voting over multiple days. These include, as set out above, ensuring ballot box security overnight and managing the risk of double voting risk.
Returning Officers and their teams managed these risks well, working alongside local and force SPOCs. No concerns in relation to the integrity of the polls in the pilot areas have been raised with the Returning Officers, the police or by political parties and candidates.
The table below sets out the costs of the pilot scheme, broken down into the main categories of spend, as provided to Welsh Government by the pilot authorities. The data represents the costs they have incurred directly (such as in relation to some of the IT provision) or have provided to local authorities to fund aspects of the pilot.
As with any pilot it is difficult to draw clear conclusions from these figures about the eventual cost of any wider roll out. This is for several reasons:
- Local authorities have taken varying approaches to how they have recorded costs (e.g. whether core team staff costs are included, which pieces of equipment are being charged for)
- Pilots will attract development costs that may not apply in the same way or at all for a roll out;
- The local authority areas involved are not representative of all areas;
- Some future costs may be missing from the pilot (e.g. national public awareness campaigns);
- There may be economies of scale to be realised nationally, despite the increase in costs that would follow from taking forward the policy in more areas.
|Type of spend
|Building hire, transport and storage
* This includes the costs incurred directly by local authorities for ongoing use of software licences plus the additional cost borne directly by Welsh Government for pilot-specific activities.
For the reasons set out above, the costs of the pilots cannot be taken as a clear indication of the likely costs of any future roll out of advance voting. However, particularly given the low turnout among early voters, it is important that any future changes are informed by an assessment of the costs and benefits of wider implementation, including the use of electronic registers to support advance voting, which was the largest area of additional costs in the pilots.