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Voter information and UK law: an overview

Detail from the cover of the 2004 London mayoral election booklet. A man with a megaphone.

Sadly, megaphone is not a valid medium for publishing election notices.

State provision of election information has always been limited in the UK. Before the 21st century there was little statutory duty to provide material for voters. But recently things have begun to change. With proposed electoral reforms in Wales and Scotland set to expand voter information in the two nations, this blog takes a look at where it is already provided in UK law.

Here at Democracy Club we work with the Electoral Commission and local authorities to run online voter information tools, both on our own sites and the Commission’s website. None of this is embodied in statute, and the Commission’s work with us is conducted under the unspecific remit of promoting “public awareness of current electoral systems”.

However, a fact often missed is that official voter information resources are already provided for English mayoral and English and Welsh Police and Crime Commissioner elections. While easily the least appreciated types of elections, Mayoral and PCC polls have offered a space for innovation in the area of voter information, offering models for emulation and improvement. Nor is this a minor detail: since the beginning of the century, millions of pounds have been spent on printed booklets and digital tools.

Postage and poll cards

Before 1918, the state provided no information about elections to voters beyond the statutory notice pinned to the door of the town hall, and gave no support to candidates. The 1918 Representation of the People Act changed this, entitling each candidate to free postage for a single mailshot to every voter in their constituency (since modified to allow an unaddressed communication to each address instead).1

In 1948 the official poll card was introduced, giving voters the names and date of the election, and the location of their polling station - previously this information would have been provided on poll cards issued by the parties themselves. Poll card design is fixed by legislation, and includes a small amount of space for councils to add ‘other information’ such as contact details, a web address, or map.

However, poll cards do not include information about candidates - even if they wanted to, a council would be unable to add these details, as the card is usually posted before applications to stand have closed. The card also lacks space to give context about what is actually up for election.

London leads the way

Until 2000 the poll card was the only statutorily required piece of election information the state had to provide to voters. But, new century, new ideas, and the most radical of New Labour’s reforms: the mayoral election booklet.

Well, ok, so it wasn’t exactly the Freedom of Information Act. But the 2000 Representation of the People Act, did mark a new direction in the state’s provision of election information, a fact which was recognised at the time.

The Act (later confirmed by a 2003 Order) requires an election booklet to be delivered to all London electors. It also allows (but does not require) the Greater London Returning Officer to make details available on a website, as well as publishing the booklet in various accessible formats.

The booklet must include a list of all candidates standing for Mayor and all GLA candidates. Mayoral candidates can have a double-page election address, although in order to do this the candidate must pay a contribution of £10,000 towards printing costs (as well as designing the spread themselves).2 This might seem steep, but is nothing compared to the entire cost of production: in the last election, the GLA set aside up to £2.5 million for the production of approximately 6.2 million copies of the booklet.

You can view the 2004 mayoral booklet on the Wayback machine, and compare it with the 2021 edition as archived by us.

The cover of the 2004 London mayoral election booklet.

Mayors on the March

After London’s innovation, the election booklet became a standard feature of all English mayoral elections. In 2007 it was provided for Local Authority mayors, and in 2017 for Combined Authorities. The layout and design is pretty much the same as the London booklet. The order in which candidates are featured is determined by lot (unlike the ballot paper, which is alphabetical). More information about how Returning Officers produce booklets can be found on the Electoral Commission’s website.

We’ve been archiving mayoral election booklet PDFs since 2017, and you can browse the booklets we’ve collected by navigating to the relevant ballot pages on WhoCanIVoteFor. If none of the candidates choose to pay for an address, no booklet is printed - this happened in Tees Valley in 2021, when only two candidates stood.

Unlike London, where the cost is fixed in law, it’s up to the Returning Officer to decide how much candidates must contribute to the cost of printing the booklet in mayoral elections in the rest of England. But like London, printing and distributing literature at this scale doesn’t come cheap: £900,000 has been earmarked for the upcoming East Midlands election booklet, due to be delivered to 1.6 million people.

Costs to candidates have not been without controversy. In 2012 the ‘outrageous’ £2,000 proposed by Bristol Council for the City’s mayoral election was cut to £750 after public outcry. That same year the cost in Salford was £500, and in Leicester £250.

Mayoral elections are often, but not always, accompanied by an official website.


The booklet format was also adopted for the UK-wide referendums on the alternative vote (2011) and membership of the EU (2016). In both cases, the Electoral Commission produced non-partisan information booklets which were each sent to 28 million households. The 2016 booklet was not the same document as the (in)famous government leaflet advising a remain vote, which was also sent to each household. Similar booklets do not appear to have been issued for subsequent national and local referendums.3

Out of print and onto the internet: Police and Crime Commissioners

Police and Crime Commissioners were one of the landmark democratic reforms of the 2010-2015 coalition government. It would be fair to say that they haven’t exactly struck a chord with the public. But in terms of statutory election information, PCCs broke new ground as the only UK election which is required by law to have a voter information website. Part 3, Article 52 of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order, 2012, stipulates:

Each candidate at an ordinary PCC election is entitled to have an election address included on a website which is maintained by or on behalf of the Secretary of State for the purpose of publishing election addresses of candidates at such an election.4

This website is, which works via a postcode search, much like Democracy Club’s services. Election addresses are prepared by each candidate’s agent and sent to the Police Area Returning Officer, who checks them against certain requirements before publication nineteen working days before the poll. As well as the website, voters can request a print booklet be sent to them.

Choose My PCC as it looked for the first elections in 2012.

In many ways the 2012 PCC election was pretty innovative. A range of (slightly alarming) campaign resources were produced by the Home Office, and voters could even register in advance to receive an email alert when the candidate information was published (something sadly lacking from today’s service).

One consequence of the Choose My PCC site was that, for possibly the first time ever, the government could produce its own data on how many candidates were standing in an election before polling day.

However, PCC elections do not offer candidates a free mailshot, nor is the printed booklet posted to every elector. There was concern at the time, including from the Electoral Commission, that using a website in place of mailings would limit the reach of the information, a concern which was amply justified by the infamously low turnout in the first PCC elections - a good example of why digital should complement, not replace, physical resources. However, booklet posting was trialled in a by-election in 2014, with no obvious effect on the abysmal turnout.

Unfortunately we don’t have any usage figures for the website (due to the government not collecting the data). What we do know is that the site cost £20,418 to run for the 2016 elections, while £193,591 was spent on the printing and postage of candidate booklets in that election. It’s also clear that the website has proved a useful tool for electoral administrators, regardless of its effect on turnout (the URL is usually added to poll cards, for example).

To the future

With the proposed Welsh and Scottish reforms, and more English devolution on the way, the state is due to take a much greater role in providing voter information in coming years. Our own work with the Electoral Commission, which now uses our data to display information about candidates to voters, has shown how innovative the state can be when given resources and a broad remit to experiment, and we hope this remit will be strengthened. The history of mayoral, referendum and PCC elections provide some useful examples to learn from.


  1. For more background to election addresses see House of Commons Library research note SN/PC/06434 (2014). 

  2. You can pay in cash! “The Greater London Returning Officer has requested £20 denominations or higher.” 

  3. In the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, a copy of Command Paper 3883 was sent to every household in Northern Ireland. 

  4. The word ‘ordinary’ here would appear to exclude by-elections, but in practise the website is used for all PCC elections. 

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