Report: May 2019 European Parliamentary elections and local elections

Overview

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.

Summary

The impact on confidence in the elections

Among issues which impacted on people’s confidence in the elections, most notable and regrettable were the issues experienced by some citizens of other EU member states living in the UK who wanted to vote in the European Parliament elections in the UK. 
We highlighted similar difficulties to government after the 2014 European Parliamentary elections and made recommendations for change. It is unacceptable that people eligible to vote should be frustrated from doing so, and deeply regrettable that this was not acted on and resolved by the UK government.

Any changes to the process would have required the Government to introduce legislation, but the law was not changed ahead of the 2019 election. The difficulties were also exacerbated by government not confirming the position on these elections proceeding until very late in the lead up to May 2019, which meant that Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) had not sent declaration forms to EU citizens in the months before the election, as would usually have been the case.

Overseas electors also contacted us during and after the European Parliamentary elections to express concern that they had been unable to return postal votes in time to be counted.

This is not a new issue and again the UK government has not addressed this problem by making changes in the law, so effectively denying numbers of UK citizens overseas who are entitled to vote a reasonably practical way to actually vote.

We will continue to urge the Government to introduce new approaches to improving access to the voting process for overseas electors, as has been readily and successfully done in other comparable democracies.

Digital campaigning

Voters continued to receive information about election campaigns from a range of sources, and social media and other online campaigns were a significant source of information for voters at the May 2019 elections.

The larger social media platforms took steps to improve transparency about political advertising for their users. Governments in the UK need to now make swift progress on legislation that would require campaigners to include imprints on their digital campaign material to show who has distributed it.

We also want social media companies to continue to develop their political ad policies and libraries, and ensure they have them in place for the next set of national elections or any further referendums in the UK. This also requires us to have new electoral regulatory rules to ensure proper oversight and controls.

Electoral law needs to be updated

Many of the issues highlighted in our report are not new, and we have said for some time that the failure of governments and parliaments to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address pressure on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections. 

The 2019 elections illustrate that electoral law is increasingly complex and outdated, and presents real risks for voters, candidates and campaigners, and electoral administrators. 

The difficulties experienced by some EU citizens in the UK and British citizens living abroad at the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections have again shown the impact on elections of governments not acting on recommendations to prioritise the interests of voters.

Delivering well-run elections 

Effective electoral administration that supports voter confidence depends on good planning and management by EROs and Returning Officers (ROs).

While ROs and EROs will always need to be prepared to respond to unanticipated political developments, governments should also ensure that their decisions support effective contingency planning.

We will continue to strongly emphasise the need for governments to ensure there is clarity about the legal framework for elections at least six months before EROs and ROs need to deliver statutory processes.

Given all of this, it is an immense credit to the ROs and other electoral staff across the country that they achieved what they did in the circumstances: largely well-run elections in the face of substantial challenges. 

We will continue to work with the electoral community to explore what more can be done within the current framework to address the challenges around resilience and capacity in local electoral services.
 

The experience of voters

Delivering the elections – the experience of electoral administrators

While most people were confident that the May 2019 elections were well-run, and were satisfied with the voting process, we identified problems which could have had an impact on people’s confidence in the elections.

These issues must, however, be considered in the context that elections continue to be run against a challenging resource backdrop. Both financial pressures and a decreasing availability of expertise in the sector, with skilled administrators leaving the profession and not always able to be replaced, mean that the risks to the successful delivery of elections continue to increase.

Administrators are reliant on a relatively small pool of specialist software and print management suppliers, which can also impact on their ability to ensure that voters receive a high quality service. 

Furthermore, for these elections, until 1 April 2019 there was no guarantee from the UK Government that any reasonable spending on contingency preparations would be reimbursed for the European Parliamentary elections.

This had a significant impact on the ability of administrators to make necessary preparations and effective contingency plans for these elections.

Where administrators were also facing local elections in early May, this meant that a lot of activity for the two different polls needed to be carried out at the same time, significantly stretching already thin resources.

Fundamentally, the evidence below further illustrates that current electoral law is increasingly complex, outdated and not fit for purpose, and contributes to issues which impact directly on voters, candidates and campaigners.

Fundamental electoral reform is needed to ensure elections can be administered more efficiently, and that voters and candidates can have a better experience of the electoral process. 

In the meantime, we will continue to work with the electoral community – including with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers & Administrators in Scotland, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland – to look at what more we can all do to address the immediate challenges of capacity and resilience within local authority electoral services.

Delivering the elections – the experience of electoral administrators

Campaigning at the elections

Appropriate campaigns that communicate effectively with voters are central to well-run elections and referendums. When campaigners clearly explain their policies and political views, voters are better able to exercise their right to vote in a meaningful and informed way.

Our research with the public after the May 2019 elections asked people if they had enough information about the candidates and parties standing for election.

After the European Parliamentary elections 49% of people said they had enough information, but 44% said they would have liked more.

These figures were similar in relation to the local elections in England, but lower than those saying they had enough information for the local elections in Northern Ireland (64%).

We also asked people where they got their information from. Of those who said they saw information, the most common source across all the May elections was a leaflet or flyer from a candidate/political party. Other sources of information, including social media, are shown below.

Table 1: Most common sources of information about candidates and parties standing for election
 Most commonly mentioned2nd most common3rd most common4th most common5th most common

European Parliamentary

Leaflet or flyer from a candidate/political party (54%)The press (38%)Social media (26%)Word of mouth/friend/ family (18%)Candidate/ party’s web-site and another website (16%)

Local Government – England

Leaflet or flyer from a candidate/political party (48%)Social media (12%)Leaflet or flyer from another source (11%)My local council website (9%)Word of mouth/friend/ family (8%)

Local Government – Northern Ireland

Leaflet or flyer from a candidate/political party (70%)Poster or billboard (36%)Word of mouth/friend/ family (26%)Social media (25%)Leaflet or flyer from another source (17%)

Campaigning at the elections

More information

Last updated: 10 October 2019
Next review: 29 September 2020