skip to content

The most complex elections ever?


The colours!

Update: On 22 February the Government announced that six councils will not be holding elections, pending consultations on proposals for unitary local governments. The six councils would have had 252 seats up for election, which means the 6 May scheduled elections in England are now 4,648 seats in 3,864 wards, across 144 councils.

The six councils are:

  • Carlisle
  • Craven
  • Cumbria
  • North Yorkshire
  • Somerset
  • South Lakeland

The following post was published on 3 Feb, and does not take account of these changes.

Whether or not the 2021 elections are held on 6 May or are postponed for a few more weeks, the general consensus is that these will be some of the most complex polls ever held in the UK. The number of different organisations involved and electoral systems used across England, Scotland, and Wales is unprecedented.

In the interests of clarity, here’s a roundup of what to expect in May.

And, importantly, maps.

So, what’s up for election?

To recap, in May 2020 the following elections were due to take place, and will now occur on 6 May 2021:

  • Mayor of London
  • The London Assembly
  • Three Local Authority Mayors (Bristol, Liverpool, Salford)
  • Four Combined Authority ‘Metro’ Mayors (Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands)
  • 39 Police and Crime Commissioners (England and Wales)
  • 118 ‘Principal’ English councils (Districts and Unitary Authorities)

Meanwhile, the following elections were already scheduled for 2021:

  • The Scottish Parliament
  • The Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament
  • Two Local Authority Mayors (Doncaster and North Tyneside)
  • Three Combined Authority ‘Metro’ Mayors (Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, West Yorkshire, West of England)
  • 31 ‘Principal’ English councils (seven Unitary Authorities and 24 County Councils)
  • The Council of the Isles of Scilly

In England alone, we’ve counted 4,900 council seats up for election on 6 May, spread across 4,116 wards and divisions, in 150 councils (including the five Parishes of the Scilly Isles).

Across the whole of Britain, a grand total of 5,166 representatives are scheduled to be elected, on 4,310 separate ballots. Here’s a map shaded by the number of seats up in each area (ward-level):

Election 2021: seats up for election in each ward. Lighter colours = more seats. Scale of zero (Northern Ireland) to twelve (Isles of Scilly).

View a Very Large version.

Oh the Complexity

With so many combined polls, the number of ballot papers voters will have to deal with will be formidable. Everyone in Scotland will receive two ballot papers. Everyone in Wales will receive three. Matters are especially complex in Wales, where two different franchises will be operating: while 16 and 17 year olds and foreign nationals can vote for the Senedd, they do not qualify to vote for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).

In England, ninety-six councils will elect a third of their councillors; six councils will elect half, and the remaining forty-eight will elect the entire council. Only 24 council areas will hold PCC elections alone; excluding a few wards across the ‘third up’ Unitary Authorities, voters elsewhere in England will receive between two and four ballots (not including any parish elections they may also have!)

Four new organisations are holding their inaugural elections: three new Unitary Authorities (West Northamptonshire, North Northamptonshire, and Buckinghamshire) and West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which is also taking on the role of the area’s PCC.

Where will have the most elections? By our calculations, voters in three council areas will be guaranteed four ballot papers each: Bristol and Liverpool will elect the council, the Mayor, the Metro Mayor, and the PCC in one go, while Cambridge will hold District, County, Combined Authority and PCC elections. In the case of Bristol, this means voters will have anything up to nine crosses to mark across two different electoral systems.

And some people still question the need for an online candidate finder!

See a list of all 6 May elections on Democracy Club Candidates.

2021 English council elections: District councils (green), Metropolitan Districts (yellow) and Unitary Authorities (pink).
Not shown: County Councils.

Other polls on 6 May

In addition to the above, many voters will also be handed ballots for parish elections and local referendums.

This year will provide a bumper crop of town and parish council elections - we don’t cover these as standard on, but are planning to announce an experimental project on them shortly!

There are also at least three governance referendums planned for 6 May: Sheffield will decide on whether to keep its council cabinet, while Newham and Tower Hamlets will hold votes on their existing elected mayors.

Finally, 6 May will also witness the largest number of council by-elections (probably) ever held on a single day. This is because councils in England have been forbidden from holding by-elections since March 2020 - a situation entirely unprecedented in modern British history (by-elections went ahead even during the two world wars). Scottish and Welsh councils are able to hold by-elections before 6 May - we’re expecting at least 24 of these over the next couple of months (by-elections are extremely unusual in Northern Ireland).

The veritable fountain of data that is Andrew Teale has been tracking council vacancies. He’s counted 287 empty seats across England - the result of a year’s worth of resignations, deaths, or disqualifications. This means that over 1.5% of all English council seats are empty (an alternative though very similar figure of 296 vacancies is given by Open Council Data UK).

Of these empty seats, 107 are already due for election in 2021. That leaves at least 175 by-elections to be held on 6 May, with three months still to go.

Volunteer for democracy!

With these elections set to occur against the backdrop of a global pandemic, stretching the resources of administrators and seriously limiting political parties’ ability to campaign, Democracy Club’s services are needed now more than ever.

Want to take part and ensure electoral information reaches those who need it most? Here are actions you can take now to help out:

  • Want to help crowdsource candidate lists? Sign up for an account at Democracy Club Candidates and start adding details. If you know someone who is involved in a political party, or is candidate themselves, let them know about us! We’ll especially need help when English council nominations are published on 8 April.

  • Join our Slack or mailing list (details at the bottom of this post) to keep up to date with our work and receive information about future crowdsourcing tasks.

  • Work in local government? Make sure your council will be providing data to our polling station finder.

  • Share our websites! If you run a blog or website you can embed our polling station finder or elections widget for free.

If you think you can help out or partner with us in some other way, please don’t hesitate to drop us an email.


UK Elections 2021: max number of ballot papers voters may be handed per council area.

Get in touch:

Jump into the online chat in Slack, tweet us, or email