Running elections: it’s an expensive job, and cash-strapped local authorities have to do it

Local authorities are responsible for running elections. But do they have enough money to do the job properly? Toby S James and Tyrone Jervier say the introduction of individual voter registration has made it much more expensive to compile the register. Authorities whose budgets have been cut are less likely to do public engagement and outreach work – and in the absence of automatic registration, we need to find out which strategies are more effective in getting people on to the electoral roll.

Votes are counted at the ICC in Birmingham for the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner election. Photo: Birmingham Newsroom via a CC BY 2.0 licence

Elections in the UK are well-run. Some may complain about the majoritarian electoral system, the methods for regulating party funding and even how the electoral registration process works. But when it comes to managing the poll, the evidence is that things go smoothly. And for that we owe much to the hard work and dedication of electoral officials.

But this is not to say that there are not emerging challenges, and one of them is resourcing. Concerns about cuts to hospitals and schools have been a major concern in Britain after recent years of public sector austerity. But as Britain goes to the polls for the general election, what about elections themselves? Earlier research documented how many electoral officials said that they lacked resources. Similarly, the New York Times recently described ‘the nation’s underfunded, patchwork election system and obsolete balloting machinery’. Yet real data on how much money electoral officials receive has not been readily available in most countries.

A new report, Funding Electoral Services in England and Wales, provides fresh insight into the funding that electoral service departments in local government receive and have spent in England and Wales from 2010-11 to 2015-16.

Local authorities have seen a marginal real terms increase in their budgets between the financial years 2010-11 and 2015-16 by £10,200 per local authority. However, this overall picture masks the huge variations in increases during a period of public sector cuts, and a real terms fall in nearly half of authorities (43%).

Many local authorities do lack resources because they are increasingly over-budget. During 2015-16, electoral services were running 129 per cent over budget on average – up from 104 per cent in 2011-12.

Running the electoral register has become more expensive

The shortfall can be attributed, in part, to changes in business processes. The introduction of individual electoral registration is thought to have added to the cost pressures by making it more expensive to compile the register. Applicants need to have their records checked against other government databases. Although most applications (approximately 90%) are processed centrally, local authorities are required to process those that initially fail ‘verification’. They are also required to undertake a two-stage canvass process that increases postage, stationery and canvassing costs. This can place enormous pressure on the resources of electoral service officers, especially when a large volume of duplicates is received.

The effects on voter outreach work

Does this matter? It is difficult to measure the effects of funding cuts because of limited data on the quality of electoral administration, especially at a local level.

But we found that areas that have seen more cuts to election funding are less likely to undertake a public engagement strategy and marginally less likely to undertake school outreach activities. The effects of an absence of such a strategy are unclear, although there was no noticeable difference in the completeness of the electoral register in areas that did less outreach work. This might be the result of a relatively small sample size. It might also suggest that the strategies that were in place, which were often modelled from an Electoral Commission template, may not be the most effective way of increasing engagement. An alternative explanation is that investments in national campaigns by the Electoral Commission and Bite The Ballot’s National Voter Registration Drive may be more important than local strategies. Nonetheless, there is therefore much scope for reviewing local outreach strategies to establish ‘what works’ when it comes to increasing registration rates.

Nonetheless, it is important to ensure that electoral officials have the resources that they need to do the job, in the UK and elsewhere. We therefore set out recommendations for reform in Britain, the principles of which may be useful in many other countries.

The government’s pilots for automatic re-registration provide an important opportunity for cost savings. By using other data sources to re-enrol citizens, there is an opportunity to save funds from the annual canvass and focus on the unregistered.

A logical extension, however, is to pilot automatic registration, which may also generate cost savings. Why spend money writing to and paying canvassers to knock on the doors of citizens to register when their details can already be verified by a variety of other public sources such as council tax records? The provision of a website on which citizen could check their registration status would be likely to reduce the number of duplicate registration applications.

We also want to see budgets and spending routinely published to enable analysis and best practice to be identified. The public availability of information will also help decision makers to be held to account for the resources that fund well-run elections and electoral registration.

Dr. Toby S James is a Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

Tyrone Jervier is a researcher at ClearView Research, with a particular interest in education and elections.

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