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Dealing with electoral change and uncertainty

Map detail showing electoral boundaries for Bath & North East Somerset council

Look out! They’re moving!

We at Democracy Club provide a postcode lookup that allows voters to find out which elections they can vote in. But this information isn’t static - both electoral boundaries and elected positions can and do change over time. In this blog we look at some of the work we do to manage this change, and discuss a current knotty problem introduced by English devolution, replete with a little legal drama.

The headline news is that we’ve got a new Electoral Changes Order tracker, which allows you to find the latest boundaries for each council area.

Councils: Bringing order to electoral change

Council elections can be confusing, not least as regards boundaries. With some areas having three different tiers of council, it can be hard to work out which ward you’ll be voting in for each election. This is further complicated by the fact that boundaries change.

Council ward boundaries are the responsibility of local government boundary commissions, of which there is one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Boundary commissions are responsible for reviewing and suggesting changes to council electoral wards, to account for changes in population, the creation of new councils, or the simple passage of time. The commissions can change the size, shape, and number of councillors of each ward. They can also change the borders of the council itself, although this is rare. When completed (and following a period of consultation), the review conclusions are put into law in the form of an ‘Electoral Changes Order’ (ECO). The new boundaries are then used for the next election, when all councillors will be up for election. The ECO also sets the council’s electoral timetable - in the case of elections by thirds, the order of retirement of councillors will determine which wards have elections going forward (see, for example, the 2019 ECO for Crawley).

In order to keep our services accurate, we at Democracy Club need to track boundary reviews and incorporate them into our systems in time for the next election. In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, where all councils hold elections at the same time, this is relatively straightforward. But in England the situation is much more complex. Because of England’s staggered electoral timetable, reviews are conducted, enacted and inaugurated on a rolling basis. This means that a subset of councils hold elections on new boundaries each year - last year 49 of 230 councils had new boundaries, and this year it’s 21 of 107.1

ECOs are enacted as statutory instruments, which take time to pass through parliament, and every year there are always a handful which aren’t enacted until February or even as late as March. We’ve blogged about this problem before - in short, it means that we sometimes aren’t able to create elections until they are made into law (at time of writing, one 2 May council election has not yet been created for this reason).

This is all a roundabout way to introduce our new ECO tracker. This offers an easy way to find out when the last review for a council was, with links to the legislation and (hopefully) the relevant boundary commission page.

Combining Authorities

English Devolution is coming thick and fast these days. Two new Combined Authority mayors (‘metro mayors’) - York & North Yorkshire, and the North East - will be elected on 2 May, alongside the new mayor of the East Midlands, who will oversee a new organisation type in the form of a Combined County Authority. Next year will likely see further innovation, with Norfolk and Suffolk currently due to elect county council leaders (previously only boroughs have had directly elected mayors).

As with ECOs, the legislation for two of these new authorities is still going through Parliament. However, we’ve broken our rule and gone ahead and created them anyway - their size and profile means that people are far more likely to notice them missing this far out.

However, in a further twist, the Government has decided to merge the Police and Crime Commissioners for South Yorkshire and the West Midlands into the respective mayoral roles for each area. This means that the Combined Authority mayors will gain the PCC powers, and the PCCs will be abolished. Statutory Instruments have been laid in Parliament to put these changes into effect (South Yorkshire and West Midlands), and both will require approval from MPs and Peers.

This process has been fast and a little irregular. While consultations were held, these were launched after the Government had already announced the change. The majority of respondents in both consultations disagreed with the transfer of powers.

This doesn’t seem to be a problem in South Yorkshire, where both the Mayor and (retiring) PCC support the move, even though it means an early (and, from our point of view, unexpected) mayoral election, which, assuming the legislation goes through, will now take place on 2 May. In the West Midlands, however, things are a somewhat messier, as the sitting PCC opposes the decision and has applied for a judicial review.

In these cases, we’ve decided against deleting/creating the new elections just yet, as there is a chance that the legislation will not be approved by Parliament. Instead, we’ve added notes to the relevant PCC ballots on WhoCanIVoteFor, giving users information about the process.

More broadly, we’re thinking harder about how our elections database EveryElection can better reflect some of this uncertainty. Over the last couple of years we’ve modified our systems to take account of of recent electoral reforms, in particular changes to voting systems. With many more new organisations and reforms on the way, the future of elections in the UK is only going to become more complex.

Image: Bath & North East Somerset boundary review map, 2018 (LGBCE).

  1. Local authorities also hold the power to modify the name of their wards, such as happened in Gloucester in 2021. These are much harder for us to follow, and we rely on volunteers to alert us to any changes made this way. Fortunately, these are fairly rare, but it does require us to go through the same process as we do for ECOs. 

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