Strain on electoral services could threaten democratic process
Insufficient resources to maintain the electoral register, plan for the poll and encourage voters to participate could ultimately threaten the democratic process, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and ClearView Research.
Without adequate funding for electoral services, there is a strong risk that errors may occur, queues may form at polling stations, and citizens may be unregistered and turned away from polling station at elections, the researchers said. Their report, ‘The cost of elections: Funding electoral services in England and Wales’, was funded by the JRRST Charitable Trust and provides fresh insight into the funding received and spent by electoral service departments in local government.
Local authorities have seen a marginal real terms increase of £10,200 in their respective budgets between the financial years 2010-11 and 2015-16. However, this overall picture masks the huge variations in increases during a period of public sector cuts. The research shows there was a real terms fall in nearly half of authorities (43 per cent) – often in very significant numbers.
At the same time, elections have become more expensive to run, requiring more substantial staff, IT updates and postage costs. In 2015-16 the average spending was 129 per cent of the annual budget.
Evidence suggests many local authorities lack resources because they are increasingly over budget. During 2015-16, electoral services were running 129 per cent over budget on average. This is a rise from 104 per cent in 2011-12.
Areas that have seen more cuts to funding on elections are less likely to undertake work to encourage citizens to register and vote, according to the research.
There was little evidence this had fed through into levels of electoral registration yet – however the researchers suggested that could change in the future. There is therefore a need for the funding of elections to be carefully monitored in the future, the researchers said.
Dr Toby James, a senior lecturer in British and comparative politics in UEA’s School of Politics, compiled the report with Mr Tyrone Jervier from ClearView Research.
Dr James said: “Voter engagement activity from local authorities can be a casualty of public sector cuts. At a time when there are concerns about turnout and unregistered voters in the forthcoming general election, this is of critical importance.
“It should not be forgotten that elections themselves are the most indispensable of the public services and can’t be taken for granted.”
The report recommends that budgets and spending should be routinely published to enable analysis and identify best practice. The public availability of information will also help hold councils accountable for the resources that invest into well-run elections and electoral registration.
Mr Jervier said: “This report suggests that methodologies could be developed to identify the most efficient local services, so that best practices could be shared.”
The report’s six key recommendations are:
- There should be a fundamental review of the financing of elections and electoral registration in the UK.
- Local authority election budgets and spending should be routinely published and made available to the public in a standard accounting practice to ensure transparency. Electoral registration officers are not a public authority under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and, as such, are exempt from the disclosure requirements imposed by it. The advantages and disadvantages of this provision should be reviewed.
- Data on local authority elections should be used to identify the most cost-efficient organisations so best practices can be identified and shared. Under-resourced local authorities should be identified and sufficient funds allocated to their budgets.
- Further resources should be provided by central government to offset additional costs that may continue to be faced by local authorities as a result of the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration.
- Practices such as automatic registration and re-registration should be piloted to identify efficient ways to compile a complete and accurate register.
- A national website to allow citizens to check their registration status should be introduced to reduce duplicate applications, thereby reducing pressures on local authorities.
Dr James said: “Elections remain the principal way in which citizens participate in the democratic process, and smooth and efficient organisation of the process is absolutely essential for democracy, decision making and governance in Britain.”
The cost of elections: Funding electoral services in England and Wales is published on Monday 5 June 2017.Tweet