On 23 May 2019 people across the UK voted in elections to the European Parliament, which had remained scheduled in law, but had not been expected to take place. For people in Northern Ireland and parts of England, this poll closely followed scheduled local elections which took place on 2 May.
Trusted election results rely on public confidence in the administration of the polls. Our research with the public shows that a majority of people were confident the May 2019 elections were well-run, and most voters were satisfied with the voting process. But overall levels of confidence about the European Parliamentary elections and the local government elections in England were lower than at other recent elections.
Delivering the elections – the experience of electoral administrators
We asked electoral administrators to tell us about their own experiences of delivering the elections and the practical difficulties they faced.
Administrators told us that the late confirmation of the European Parliamentary elections, coupled with the overlapping timetables with the scheduled local government elections, presented difficulties in booking places to be used as polling stations and count venues and securing polling station staff.
Some staff were no longer available as they had not anticipated being needed to work.
Many suppliers and printers were also at full capacity which meant that administrators had little flexibility to control the timing of the printing of poll cards and postal ballot packs to ensure the earliest possible delivery to electors.
The impact of this was particularly notable in Northern Ireland where the deadline to apply for an absent vote for the European Parliamentary elections fell on polling day for the local elections. This put additional pressure on electoral staff and caused confusion for voters.
Given the volume of stationery which had to be printed for the local elections, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) was unable to print and issue poll cards until after the absent voting deadlines. This had an adverse impact on voters in Northern Ireland as they received this important information too late to apply for an absent vote.
Contingency preparations in Northern Ireland
In Great Britain, as independent statutory office holders who are typically also senior officers within local authorities, most RROs and ROs had sufficient flexibility to begin some appropriate contingency planning before it was formally confirmed that the European Parliamentary elections would take place.
However, the structure of electoral management in Northern Ireland is different in that the CEO is directly appointed by and reports to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In this context, we believe the CEO was restricted in what contingency arrangements she could put in place to manage the potential risks for voters caused by this lack of clarity.
In 2011, we recommended that the UK Government should consult stakeholders in Northern Ireland on the accountability arrangements in place for the CEO’s decision making. Although the context is different than in 2011, in our view this supports the continued importance of undertaking such a review.
In February 2019, ahead of the May elections, the law was changed to allow candidates at local government elections in England to choose not to have their home address printed on the statement of persons nominated and the ballot papers.
We welcomed these changes, which should help to reduce the risk of abuse and intimidation of local election candidates and their families; however, candidates and ROs would have benefited from this new legislation being in place earlier.
At the 2 May 2019 local elections in England, ROs told us that some candidates and agents found it difficult to understand the new nominations process, and found it harder to accurately complete the forms they needed to in order to stand for election.
If the legislation had been in place earlier, there would have been more time available for the development and testing of the new nomination pack before it needed to be made available, and to provide updated guidance and template briefings sooner, which would have better supported electoral administrators and candidates to fully understand the new process.
This reinforces the importance of legislation being clear six months before it needs to be complied with. We accept that the nomination packs we made available could be improved, and we are taking active steps to do so ahead of the next scheduled local elections, and will work with administrators and parties in doing this.
Additionally, some candidates did not realise that their address would appear on the statutory notice of election agents if they nominated themselves as their own election agent and did not specify a different address.
This would also be the case if the candidate did not appoint someone to be their agent, in which case they would automatically become the agent.
Although the new rules helped candidates to protect their home address by not including it on ballot papers – where the information is not essential to enable voters to identify candidates – there are still some circumstances in which details of an address need to be made publicly available.
As election agents are responsible for ensuring candidates comply with election law, details of a physical address are necessary so that any legal notices can be delivered. Removing addresses from the notice of election agents could make it harder to monitor and enforce the law.
At the local government elections in England, we are aware of two instances where a candidate’s address was published on the Statement of Persons nominated when it should have been withheld.
This could have compromised a candidate’s safety if this was the reason why they did not want their address made public. As a result, these ROs 1 were assessed as not fully meeting our performance standards.
Equivalent changes were not made for the local government elections in Northern Ireland. When nominations opened, a high profile councillor, who has a restraining order in place to protect her, announced that she would not be contesting the election because her home address would appear on the ballot paper. We welcome the Northern Ireland Office’s commitment to change the law on this issue.
During the weeks leading up to polling day for the local government elections in England we became aware of several errors on election materials in a small number of local authorities. These included:
- errors on postal ballot papers (for example, missing off the name of a candidate)
- postal ballot packs sent with incorrect instructions about completing the ballot paper
- incorrect details on poll cards that were sent to electors
Errors like these have the potential to cause confusion for voters, and may have meant that some voters were unable to have their votes counted in the way they intended.
Although the ROs in all cases responded quickly to mitigate the impact of these errors, such issues can affect people’s confidence in well run elections and their satisfaction with the voting process.
As a result, a total of five ROs2 were assessed as not fully meeting our performance standards.
It is important that voters, candidates and political parties have confidence in the accuracy of the election counting process.
We became aware of mistakes made in counting and totalling the number of votes in three local government elections in England in May 2019.
In one local authority, a spreadsheet error in the calculation of votes meant that the wrong number of votes were allocated to some candidates in one ward. In the second and third authority, the RO declared the wrong candidate elected.
The ROs accepted that they had made errors, but the law does not allow ROs to recount ballot papers or correct errors once they have declared a result. Election petitions were lodged in two to challenge the results of the elections, both of these have been upheld.
All of these ROs3 were assessed as not fully meeting our performance standards.
We continue to recommend that electoral law reform is required to simplify the legal process for challenging elections, particularly so that mistakes made by ROs can be rectified more quickly without recourse to the election petition process.
Campaigning at the elections
Campaigners are increasingly making use of digital campaign tools to influence voters during elections, including using social media and other online advertising tools.
Evidence from our research with the public highlighted above shows use of social media and other online platforms as sources of information about the candidates and political parties standing in elections.
Labelling and imprints for online election material
Facebook, Twitter and Google all launched new advert labelling or ‘Paid for by’ disclaimers for some political advertising on their platforms and channels during the European Parliamentary election campaign.
These new ‘Paid for by’ disclaimers increased transparency about who was spending money to influence voters at the European Parliamentary elections.
But these disclaimers were not the same as the imprint (a short piece of text on election material that identifies who is behind it) that is required by law for printed election material, because they did not include the name and address of the campaigner. Currently, imprints are a legal requirement for any printed election material, but there are no legal requirements for digital material.
We are pleased that the UK Government has committed to implementing an imprint requirement for digital election material, and to publish legislative proposals by the end of this year.
The social media companies’ initiatives at the European elections have demonstrated that it is possible to add extra labelling to adverts on their platforms. They show that it should be possible for digital platforms and channels to facilitate campaigners to put imprints on digital election material if campaigners are legally required to include them in future.
New imprint rules for digital election material should cover all non-printed election campaign material, not just social media advertising. They should also cover search and website advertising, campaigners’ websites and emails, and any other form of online campaigning even if it is not paid-for advertising.
There should be an exemption to make clear that they would not apply to individual citizens who are not ‘campaigning’ but only expressing personal opinions about elections or referendums online.
Social media companies’ advert libraries and reports
Facebook, Google and Twitter voluntarily published advert libraries which contained the election advertising that ran on their platforms and channels ahead of the May 2019 European Parliamentary election.
Facebook and Google published reports on the contents of their libraries. The reports listed who was campaigning, and gave summary information about how many adverts campaigners had taken out and how much they had spent.
The libraries and reports helped us identify who was paying to advertise on these platforms, meaning we could advise campaigners during the campaign and giving us a new source of information to support our checks on reported spending after the poll.
The ad libraries are now a way voters and others can get information about who viewed the adverts, but they do not yet provide meaningful information about how adverts were targeted. For example, they provide breakdowns of the very wide geographical areas targeted, such as England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but not to the more detailed level of the specific constituencies targeted.
The libraries will give more useful transparency if the companies increase the amount of information that they publish about targeting of advertising.
Social media companies that operate in the UK should continue to develop their ad policies and libraries, and ensure that they have them in place for the next set of national level elections or any future referendums in the UK, and thereafter.
It should be legally required for social media companies and other platforms that provide advertising services to run these kinds of libraries and reports, which could be enforced as appropriate, possibly through the Government’s proposed Online Harms regulator.
This would ensure voters can access a consistent level of information about election or referendum advertising across different platforms online.
Social media companies’ advertising policies
Facebook, Google and Twitter all adopted policies for political advertising that ran on their platforms and channels during the European Parliamentary election campaign. But those policies did not completely align with the definitions in electoral law.
Where their policies did not do this for the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections, some platforms failed to label certain types of campaigning, such as issue based campaigns, paid for by non-party campaigners.
For future elections, social media companies should ensure that their election advertising policies fit the definitions of election campaigning in electoral law. This may need to become a legal requirement.
Late confirmation that the European Parliamentary elections would go ahead in the UK also meant there was not much time for new political parties to register or for existing parties to update their party identifiers before nominations opened.
This was exacerbated by applications for the local elections already being processed. As a result of the late confirmation of the European Parliamentary elections proceeding, some parties were not able to register and stand candidates at the European Parliamentary elections.
Parties and campaigners deliver their reports of election spending after the poll. We will publish these as soon as possible after they are delivered.
We have a statutory duty to report on the administration of the European Parliamentary election held in the UK in May 2019.
We have also highlighted issues from the local government elections that were held in some parts of England earlier in May 2019. We separately wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to highlight issues from the local government elections that were held across Northern Ireland on 2 May 2019.
We have also produced a report on our enquiry into the registration process for citizens of other Member States of the EU in relation to European Parliamentary elections and the experience of some citizens of other EU Member States at the 2019 election, which has informed the conclusions in this report.
On 2 May 2019 elections were held for 248 local councils in England, and all 11 local councils in Northern Ireland.
There were also elections for five directly elected local authority Mayors, in Bedford, Mansfield, Leicester, Copeland and Middlesbrough, and an election for the Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority.
The electorate for local government elections in England was 27.9 million and approximately 9 million votes were cast. The overall turnout was 32.8%.
Postal votes were issued to around 4.6 million electors in England and 2.9 million postal votes were included in the count. In Northern Ireland, where postal voting is not available on demand, 15,464 postal votes were issued.
The European Parliamentary elections took place in the UK on 23 May, with voters choosing 73 MEPs in 12 electoral regions.
A total of 46.5 million people were registered to vote in the European Parliamentary elections on 23 May 2019. Some 17.3 million votes were included in the count, representing an overall turnout of 37.2%.
We collected information from different sources to help ensure that our review of the May elections is thorough and robust. This included:
- a survey asking people what they thought about the May elections
- a survey of electoral administrators to understand their experience of running the elections
- electoral data including numbers about turnout, registration of EU citizens, postal voting and spoilt ballot papers
- 1. Newcastle City Council and North Lincolnshire Council ↩ Back to content at footnote 1
- 2. Arun District Council, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Thanet District Council, Winchester City Council ↩ Back to content at footnote 2
- 3. Allerdale Borough Council, Swindon Borough Council, Milton Keynes Council ↩ Back to content at footnote 3