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Who’s missing, and why?

Underrepresentation in voter registration, candidacy, informedness and turnout

Joe Mitchell, Democracy Club, December 2018

Draft: This report is in draft form. We welcome comments, questions and references to things we should have read. We aim to come back and update it, in response to comments, in early 2019. Please comment directly on the Google Doc version, or email us . Pun-based title suggestions for the report warmly welcomed.

Introduction

Not everyone takes part in elections. Around 15% of people are not registered to vote, elections candidates do not reflect the diversity of the population, not everyone can access good information about elections, turnout rarely nudges above two-thirds of eligible voters in general elections and around one-third in local elections. Understanding who is missing, and why, is a perpetual challenge for any society that considers itself democratic.

Democracy Club is a non-partisan non-profit that seeks to improve the democratic process by bringing it up to date with the way people live now. As part of our grant agreement with Unbound Philanthropy, a foundation that aims to ensure all people can enjoy a life free of barriers to their full participation in society, we set out to produce new research on the experiences of underrepresented people through People are reluctant to open doors; people think you’re looking for money; there’s a slight fear or lack of interest.the election process.

Democracy Club already assumes that some of our work is particularly useful to audiences typically underrepresented at elections. For example, we assume that a recent migrant or young person has more need of our online polling station finder than someone who has lived in the same location for many years. However, there may be other ways that democratic participation could be improved that we have not considered. This research and report will guide our work to do better to engage more groups in the elections process and we hope it will serve useful to other organisations in pursuit of the same goal.

Summary

The scope of the research is the experience of underrepresented people throughout the elections process. ‘The elections process’ is defined as voter registration, candidacy, receiving and consuming information on elections, and ultimately, turnout. The report attempts to identify groups of people that are underrepresented at each stage and looks at why that might be.

Research for the report was conducted over the summer and autumn of 2018. It began with desk research across the field and then approached a range of experts and organisations working on electoral engagement issues. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine individuals or organisations. Lastly, we conducted 14 short interviews with people in Easton, an area of significant deprivation in Bristol.

Voter registration

The Electoral Commission estimates that 85% of eligible people register to vote. This data is from 2014 and suggests that 7.5m people are missing. The introduction of Individual Electoral Registration did not make a great difference overall, though fewer young people are registered.

Young people are under-registered, which may be a product of their mobility, knowledge or attitudes. An example of student voter registration from Sheffield University shows how this could be improved for those in full-time education, but other groups of young people may remain hard to reach.

People from ethnic minorities are under-registered, though it is hard to differentiate the effects of mobility, incomes, home ownership and a younger BME population than average. There is not a great deal of survey data on the reasons for under-registration.

Migrants to the UK from abroad are believed to be under-registered but there is no quantitative evidence on the extent of this gap. Barriers may include a lack of English language skills or lack of knowledge of the process and elections.

Fewer than two-thirds of private renters are registered. There is a strong correlation with length of residence and registration. A greater proportion of ethnic minorities and young people rent their homes.

There are also correlations between low registration rates and lower social grades, potentially those with learning disabilities (but not physical disabilities) and it seems likely that homeless people are under-registered.

Clearly, many of these characteristics overlap, and it can be difficult to separate these groups or understand the compound effects of say, being a young person not at university in a rented room.

To improve voter registration rates, the idea of automatic voter registration has popular support and was supported by several experts we spoke to. Other interventions raised include lowering the voting age, shifting attitudes or beliefs about democracy, and better coordinated civil society efforts.

Candidacy

There is not a great deal of work on underrepresented groups at candidacy, though the issue is under increasing scrutiny from academics. Democracy Club’s data makes it easier to begin to understand who is underrepresented at candidacy.

We can extrapolate from data on elected representatives, on whom there is more data, to suggest what is happening at the candidate stage. This would suggest that women, ethnic minorities and young people are underrepresented. The most recent ‘census’ of councillors suggested that only 4% of councillors (versus 14% of the population) are from ethnic minorities. Research suggests that just 20% of councillors are under 50 years old. Again, the reasons for this are not well-evidenced, but could include the culture of political parties or of politics more generally, the perception of political roles, and the lack of role models.

Research into the membership of political parties, a likely route to candidacy, shows them to be unrepresentative of the average population. The major parties are making efforts to diversify their members and candidates and more research into this work would be welcomed.

Interventions to increase diversity at the candidate stage could include removing the £500 deposit, providing better information on the process, and increasing the public understanding of the role of elected representatives. Non-partisan interventions are currently small-scale, though informal social media campaigns such as #AskHerToStand may have a wider reach. Encouraging more people to stand without changes to the system that set up the structural discrimination in the first place may result in increased frustration.

Information about elections

Democracy Club aims to make information about elections more accessible to voters. Accordingly, we are keen to learn whether there are identifiable groups who are underserved when it comes to information about elections.

Unfortunately, there is not sufficient data on how people learn about elections, let alone on whether this differs demographically or between other characteristics. Research does suggest high levels of errors where people are asked about elections, which warrant further investigation.

The best available data on this subject comes from Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement, which shows that TV and radio news still has the biggest role to play in getting people election information, though younger people are more likely to go online for information.

In short interviews conducted in Bristol, nobody told us they lacked for information, referring to conversations they had with friends in person or on social media, and to the leaflets that they received.

Several experts told us that migrants would be left out of most election communication, particularly those for whom English is not a first language.

There is a need for more data on how election information is received and consumed, and by whom. Interventions to improve access to information across all groups of people might include increasing spend on digital marketing, on coordination between media, on content in additional languages, and on a greater number of, and innovation in, election debates.

Turnout

Turnout rates are logically linked to registration rates: one cannot vote without being registered. However, someone may be registered and not turnout to vote — it is therefore important to identify whether there are specific challenges to turnout faced by certain groups.

Turnout is calculated by local authorities from the votes cast versus the total eligible registered voters. No demographic data about those turning out is captured at the point of voting, so any breakdown by age or ethnicity relies on survey data. This is problematic because people tend to overstate their turnout history.

The most robust evidence on turnout comes from the British Election Study, which shows a significant gap in turnout by age: older people are more likely to vote than the young. There’s an around an 80% chance that a 70-year-old voted at the last general election, compared with a 45% chance that a 20-year-old did.

Other survey data suggests that turnout among people of ethnic minorities is five percentage points lower than average, though this may simply reflect their lower registration rate. Perhaps relatedly, there is some evidence that people from ethnic minorities are more likely to perceive of electoral fraud occurring in their area and that they more likely to vote if someone of the same ethnicity is standing.

Further evidence suggests that people from lower social classes are less likely to vote, and experts suggest this might be related to the national narratives around the working poor.

There is no survey data on the turnout of those with disabilities, but it seems likely to be lower than average. Turnout for those with learning disabilities maybe dramatically lower than average: one organisation estimated that only 1 in 8 people with such disabilities turnout to vote.

Turnout obviously varies by geography, although analysis of 2017 found no link between marginality and turnout. It may be useful to collate and produce an open dataset of all turnout data from local authorities for a nationwide picture.

The reasons for lower turnout may be similar as to those for lower registration, but more research is needed.

Interventions that could result in more equal (and ideally better) turnout across society include: lowering the voting age; increasing non-partisan ‘get out the vote’ efforts by the public, private and third sectors; and online voting.

Overarching influences

Factors not directly related to elections may affect participation in the elections process. Most obviously, these might include levels of education and political knowledge, which warrant further research.

Analysis of trust in politicians shows that it is generally low among all groups, but especially those in lower social classes.

Personal efficacy and assertiveness differs across demographics: younger people have a stronger sense that they can affect politics than average, as do people from ethnic minorities, even while they report a lower level of interest in politics.

Geography counts: those in the south of England and London are more likely to feel they can effect change. And financial precarity is believed to harm participation in elections too.

Participation in elements of non-electoral democracy may also reflect or result in differences between groups at elections. Joining petitions and boycotts is less common for people of ethnic minorities, but there is evidence that civic activity is higher among minority groups. Some evidence shows that young people are more likely to participate in political groups, if not parties.

These overarching influences on electoral participation are likely to require broad interventions in response. These are suggested in our conclusions.

Conclusions

It is difficult to clearly distinguish groups and factors that lead to underrepresentation through the elections process. The reasons for under-participation are multifaceted, multilayered and complex. Interventions must bear this in mind.

It seems likely that the problems do not lie essentially with the processes. Instead, underrepresentation is driven by a lack of knowledge, lack of confidence, lack of faith in the system and hard-to-pin-down cultural and attitudinal qualities.

A lack of extensive, robust data makes it difficult to know more. As a society we take great pains to measure the economy and public health, but pay precious little attention to democratic engagement; this needs to change.

A detailed piece of audience segmentation research could identify attitudinal or knowledge clusters of people that might be more useful than demographics for targeting interventions. Deep ethnographic studies could help us understand people’s experience of elections in the context of rest of their lives. Such research might suggest that single interventions, such as a better get out the vote campaign, is unlikely to be enough, given the complexity of the issue.

Until there is better research, incremental improvements that serve everyone can still be made, particularly in making the election process more accessible. But there may be a limit to what accessibility can do. Politics and democracy is complex, and greater effort at comprehensive civic education for all, delivered by expanded or new institutions may be necessary.

But better information or education cannot deliver a democracy in which everyone takes part, if that education helps people only to realise that the system does not work. As a society, we may need to ask bigger questions about reform of our democratic systems. The current political, legal, constitutional turmoil created by the EU referendum has shaken up the pieces — now might be a good time to consider how they should land.

Voter registration

Voter registration is a prerequisite for electoral participation and receives both a significant amount of attention in the literature and in efforts to improve the rate of registration.

Overall, The Electoral Commission estimates that around only 85% of eligible registrants are correctly registered. The most recent and large-scale survey of voter registration, which features prominently in much other literature, is The Electoral Commission’s ‘Quality of the 2014 electoral registers…’, which was a face-to-face survey of 5,000 people. It drew the conclusion that 7.5m people were not correctly registered at their current address in March 2014. This meant that the parliamentary electoral register was only 85.9% complete and the local government electoral register was only 84.7% complete. These 7.5m have been referred to as the ‘missing millions’ by organisations such as Bite the Ballot1.

The registration level has changed over time, stabilising over the last decade. The Electoral Commission’s report gives some historical context, suggesting that the register’s completeness peaked in the 50s and 60s, then declined through the 80s, rose again in the new millennium, before stabilising over the last decade. The commission suggests that increased levels of internal mobility or increased migration may explain the variations in completeness.

The Electoral Commission’s research was conducted in 2014, before the introduction of individual electoral registration, or IER, via the gov.uk/register-to-vote service. An update to the research, conducted in December 2015, found that IER had not made a great deal of difference to the population as a whole, though it did appear to have worsened the situation of certain groups, as explained below.

Young people

The Electoral Commission’s research shows registration rates for younger people as follows:

  • 16-17 year-olds: 45%
  • 18-19 year-olds: 65%
  • 20-24 year-olds: 67%
  • 25-34 year-olds: 70%

This compares with 85% of the overall population (and with 96% of those over 65). This gap between young people and the average population is believed to have worsened as a result of the introduction of IER in 2015. For example, for 18- and 19-year-olds the registration rate decreased from 76% in the days of household registration to 65% with individual electoral registration2.

A range of reasons exist for the youth registration gap, from beliefs about and attitudes towards politics to the practical issue of being more likely to move regularly. The latter may be most important: The Electoral Commission’s research shows that only 27% of people who have moved house in the last year are registered to vote. This relates to the research on private renters, below.

The literature and our interviews suggest that young people may have, claim or place a higher weight on their lack of knowledge. They may lack confidence in their understanding of the process and its value. They may believe that politics has little effect on their lives currently, compared with the perception of a homeowner or a pensioner. Or it may be that a certain level of life experience and of gradual exposure to political issues may be required before the effort to register to vote is made. Among 18-24 years, only 39% say that they know ‘at least a fair amount’ about politics, although this is an increase on previous years3.

As with all the groups we look at in this report, there are cleavages within the group that we define as ‘young people’. Perhaps the clearest division is in education: young people’s levels of education are a significant indicator of registration levels. Some 77% of 18-34s with a degree are registered to vote, compared to 57% without4.

Democracy Club has previously found that “few research or involvement projects are aimed at young people in work, houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs/flatshares), NEETs (not in education, employment or training), people still living at their parents’ home or any combination of the above”5. One local authority told us that they were making good efforts with apprentices, but it seems likely that apprentices are generally harder to reach than university students who are registered in their (tens of) thousands with a single institution. Around 120,000 people under 19-years-old begin apprentices each year in the UK, but we did not find evidence on their registration rates6.

Students at universities or colleges are easier to target. Some universities now plan to try to register all their students near automatically, following Sheffield University’s trials, which involved students simply ticking a box to register to vote as they registered at the university. The House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement recommended that this approach be taken up by all further and higher education institutions7. We heard from Kirklees Council that they were keen to do this for Huddersfield University and we expect this approach will be popular with electoral officers and university administrators nationwide.

There may also be a gap in how information reaches different age groups. In advance of elections, The Electoral Commission spends significant sums on advertising the need to register to vote, and suggests that TV advertising is ‘still the most effective way of reaching a public audience’, which may work less well in reaching a younger audience8.

Ethnic minorities

White people are more likely to be registered to vote than people from ethnic minorities. The data on ethnic minority voter registration comes from the pre-Individual Electoral Registration survey by The Electoral Commission. It suggests that white people were most likely to be registered (85.9%), followed by Asian (83.7%), Black (76%), Mixed (73.4%) and Other (62.9%).

Again, the reasons for this are multiple and overlap with other demographic, economic or educational aspects. For example, The Runnymede Trust has posited that people from ethnic minorities are more likely to move address9. People from ethnic minorities are also more likely to live in rented accommodation. Other overlapping factors might be that ethnic minorities are more likely to have lower incomes and are younger than the average population10.

The reasons do not seem to include any significantly different beliefs or attitudes between ethnicities. In 2014, The Electoral Commission commissioned a research company to boost the sample size of black and minority ethnicities in one of their annual tracking surveys. It showed that there was not much difference between attitudes and knowledge of the BME population and the white population when it comes to voter registration. For example, 88% of the BME population are ‘confident about knowing how to register to vote’11.

The low levels of data available on certain ethnicities makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions. One group of people into whom there is limited research, and none at scale, is those who identify as travellers. It is believed that the group, estimated at 150,000-300,000 people, face particular difficulties given their mobility and distrust of public institutions, but the sample size in The Electoral Commission’s research is too small to provide strong evidence for their under-registration12.

Migrants

There appears to be no data on the registration rate of people who have migrated to the UK, but it is commonly believed that they are likely to be under-registered. In advance of the general election in 2015, Migrants’ Rights Network estimated that one in ten eligible voters was a migrant13.

One difficulty for recent migrants, particularly if they are not involved in the labour market or otherwise integrated into English-speaking groups is language skills. Research by Heath et al found that fluency in English was an important indicator for voter registration14.

The idea of registering to vote may itself be odd to migrants. Experts told us that many migrants, particularly Eastern Europeans, such as Poles and Romanians, who are among the biggest migrant communities in the UK, are used to having identity cards that obviate the need for voter registration. Migrants may also lead busier, more stressful lives than average and may not prioritise voter registration. They are, by definition, less likely to have lived in the same location for as long, they may not feel welcomed or informed enough to participate in civic activities such as registering to vote, or they may not believe that they are eligible to register. No detailed survey of migrant voters was found, which would be necessary to evidence these claims. More research would also be able to tease out the differences between migrants to identify, for example, whether there were significant differences between migrants from Western Europe and Eastern Europe, between Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries and so on, and as to the extent that such differences could be explained by, for example, income or education level.

Private renters

One of the most clearly underrepresented groups of people at the voter registration stage are those in private rented accommodation. Only 63.3% private renters are registered according to 2014 data15. The 2015 data showed a worsening level of registration for those who had recently moved, from 40% registration among those whose length of residence was less than a year, in 2014, to just 27% in 2015 after the introduction of individual electoral registration.

Relatedly, there is a strong correlation between the length of time that a person has lived somewhere and whether they are registered. Less than 40% of those who have resided in a place for less than a year are registered to vote, compared with 94% of those who have lived somewhere for at least 16 years16.

Government data from England shows that people in rented accommodation are more likely to be from ethnic minorities, even controlling for income, age and so on. Some 33% of those with black African ethnicity rent their home, as do 53% with Chinese ethnicity. The data has ‘white other’ at 59%, which presumably means white migrants. Ethnic minority renters are also higher in the south-east and south-west and London17.

The effects of youth, ethnicity and accommodation combine, which may create areas of particular under-registration. Of 16-24-year-olds, 62% live in rented accommodation, which rises to 75% for those of the same age who are BME. Of 25-34-year-olds, 38% live in rented accommodation, rising to 64% for those from that age who are BME18.

As is the theme in this research, the quantitative data points clearly in the direction of underrepresentation, but does not tell us much about why. Assumptions as to the reasons could include the likelihood of private accommodation being of multiple occupancy and thus post getting lost or doors not being answered; private tenants may simply move around too quickly to bother registering — this may be particularly true in London and the south east, where private tenancy can be extremely short.

Lower incomes

Evidence shows a difference in registration between social grades. The Electoral Commission’s 2014 research showed that 84-87% of ABC1C2s were registered, versus 80% of those in DE social groups.

Several factors may explain this. Citizens Advice suggests that financial precarity is related to civic participation, with those struggling financially lacking the ‘headspace’ to deal with more administration tasks19. Again, the status of lower income or social grade may also overlap with factors already identified, such as lower levels of education, mobility or migration and youth. One interviewee told us that geography matters. In lower income areas, it could be harder to access people to ask them to register to vote.

“People are reluctant to open doors; people think you’re looking for money; there’s a slight fear or lack of interest.”

People with disabilities

Registration rates for those with disabilities vary depending on the disability. People with physical disabilities are estimated to have a higher registration rate than the average population, at around 91%. Those with mental disabilities have a lower registration rate, at 81%20. Those with learning disabilities are also likely to be under-registered, but there is not evidence from quantitative surveys to show this.

One of our interviewees reported that there is sometimes a lack of understanding as to what a carer of a person with learning disabilities can do for them and that now less care is provided by local authorities, there are fewer opportunities to connect and remind carers of the importance of voter registration.

Homeless people

One increasingly significant driver of under-registration is homelessness. The housing charity Shelter currently estimates that there are at least 320,000 homeless people in the UK21. There appears to be no data on registration rates among homeless people, but it seems likely to be extremely low, for obvious reasons. Homelessness is not a legal barrier to registration and charitable organisations that work with homeless people do encourage registration and voting.

Overseas electors

British people living overseas are likely to be under-registered. Such people are currently eligible to register to vote for up to 15 years after they left the UK, and although this option was rarely taken up, there was a leap in the registration rate as a result of the EU Referendum. As at 2018, the UK Government’s policy is to remove this cap, so that British people can vote from outside the UK for the rest of their lives. This is therefore likely to continue to be an underrepresented group. We assume the reasons are the cost of contacting and reminding these people, and their own attitudes to the relevancy of continuing to vote in the UK.

Improving voter registration

Experts we spoke to suggested a range of ideas that could increase the voter registration rate. They are listed here in order of their potential impact and popularity.

Automatic registration

The most common route to better rates of registration, mentioned in several reports and by organisations and academics, as well as surfacing every so often in select committees on civic engagement, was the idea of automatic voter registration.

Automatic voter registration, or AVR, is common across the world. One interviewee pointed out that it appears to particularly be anglophone countries that are the odd ones out. In the UK at least, the lack of AVR relates to the lack of an identity card and database, which is again fairly common throughout the world and thus obviates the need for voter registration.

It is thought that it would not be necessary to introduce an identity database in order to have automatic voter registration in the UK. Registration could occur for 16-year-olds at the moment they receive their national insurance number and then systems could be created to check the registers whenever people subsequently interact with the state with a changed address. For example, most of those who move will register a new address against a bank card, phone contract, council tax or utility bill — these data changes could be checked against local authority registers to ensure that the register remains up-to-date. Some new systems may need to be created for inter-authority moves, but there is some evidence that suggests that most house moves are within the same local authority.

There is some public appetite for automatic voter registration. Research conducted in 2017 for the Electoral Commission found that the top suggestion, when asked what would most increase the respondent’s satisfaction with the registration process, was AVR at 18-years-old (or 16 in Scotland). This was the first choice of 26% of respondents, though this was down from 36% on the same survey in 2016. The next 21% chose the ability to check online whether were registered. The next 17% said they wanted their details to update automatically when they move house22.

A lower voting age

Several interviewees mentioned the advantages of lowering the voting age to improve voter registration rates. If those who were still in compulsory education were to be eligible to register to vote — lowering the voting age to 16 could mean starting registration at 14 — then there would be an excellent opportunity to bring about near total voter registration for those ages. Assuming that the Sheffield University example, see above, could be rolled out in schools — or through dedicated classroom time and citizenship lessons — rates could hit 100%. The UK’s voting ages have diverged as 16-year-olds are now eligible to vote in local and devolved elections in Scotland, with Wales likely to follow suit, it may be inevitable that lower voting ages come to England and Northern Ireland too.

A shift in cultural perceptions

The greatest barrier to registration may relate to broader perceptions of values and beliefs around voting and democratic engagement. For example, The Electoral Commission’s research suggests that those who believe voting is a duty are 90% registered versus just 73-76% of those who say it’s not worth registering23. Community groups told us that there was suspicion towards registration and towards the government. One young man in Easton told us: “I don’t register, I’ve never registered, I’ve never voted… I don’t exist”, that is, that he felt ignored and powerless. Creating the conditions for this shift may not be easy, but we suggest some approaches in the conclusion to this report.

On the other hand, we had suggestions from some experts that non-political angles should be used to encourage voter registration. One local authority had more success with the importance of registration for getting a mobile phone contract as a way to start a conversation; if they began a conversation by speaking about politics and democracy, they found people would disengage. It may be worth bearing in mind the work of framing, and the risks of short-term gains from highlighting ‘self-interest values’ at the long-term expense of the ‘common-interest’ values of democracy24. While talking about mobile phones may lead people to register, it seems unlikely to increase their involvement in any other stage of the election process.

More practically, people are busy, anxious or stressed about other problems. One community group told us that ‘filling in another form is not high on people’s priority lists.’ One man in Easton said he had no time to register, even when told the process was extremely quick. It is possible this was an excuse to disguise an unwillingness to register for other reasons.

One overarching point is that engagement in democracy is going to be harder than simply changing the voter registration process. Even with a move to automatic registration, there are people that will not engage.

“The problem is not really voter registration, but education, information and willingness to vote.”

Greater civil society efforts

A range of civil society organisations get involved with voter registration, though the scale of their impact is unclear. There are exceptional local efforts that take place, driven by community groups, who may have an advantage over local government in that they are not perceived to be ‘part of the system’.

There are barriers to more effective civil society efforts. One interviewee mentioned a group in Bristol that went door-knocking and claimed to have registered 2,000 people, but verifying impact is difficult because there’s no quick and easy way to check whether someone is already registered, and because there’s no ‘referral code’ for gov.uk/register-to-vote. Further, the online process requests the registrant’s national insurance number, which means that reaching people out-of-home, where they are less likely to have access to that information, is less effective, even if community centres or faith centres might seem a better place to reach people.

There may be room for better coordination across the sector, including between public and third sector organisations. This could involve better targeting in areas shown to have low registration rates (clues to which can be seen by comparing the electoral roll numbers with the census numbers as for Democracy Club’s 2016 project, takepart.london). The extent to which civil society and local electoral registration officers already work together is not clear. The only group with the on-the-ground reach across the entire country are the election officials in each local authority, who will also have knowledge of the local under-registered groups and areas. Finding better ways to support them, or opening up their knowledge and data so that civil society groups can better target gaps may be worth further investigation.

Candidacy

When compared to research on registration, and to some extent, turnout, there is little work o on the representativeness of UK election candidates. Democracy Club estimates that every year between 10,000 and 15,000 people stand for election. Not a great deal is known about who they are and whether they are representative of the UK population. There are sometimes surveys of candidates, including a recent one by The Electoral Commission, but of course this cannot review the experiences of those who considered candidacy and chose not to stand. We found no research into the general public’s views on standing as a candidate. There may be differences between party candidates and independent candidates, but the latter are a very small minority of candidates.

“It’s the political parties who do the real work [in encouraging people to stand] here — we’re just normally presented with what we have.”

Extrapolation from studies of representatives, our interviews with experts, and the surveys of candidates that exist suggest that the categories of underrepresented at the candidacy stage look similar to those missing at the registration stage, but with one significant group added: women.

Women

The underrepresentation of women in parliament and in councils across the country has been regularly highlighted in this centenary year of the introduction of (some) women’s suffrage. In the field of research on candidates, the gender gap is the area that perhaps has most information.

We know that women are significantly underrepresented at the candidacy stage. Women were only 29% of GE2017 candidates25. In terms of non-parliamentary election candidates, Democracy Club estimated that of around 12,500 candidates standing in May 2016, only one-third were women.

We found no quantitative survey data on the reasons for this gap, but there is some qualitative data. Research by the Fawcett Society, consisting of a survey and at least one focus group, found that local party branches were not perceived as hospitable. Some local party branches were perceived to have ‘an ideal candidate’ in mind: a ‘white male: middle class and able-bodied’. The research also found that women were inhibited from gaining informal experience at early stages of candidacy process, such as speaking at fringe events at a conference26.

The Fawcett research chimes with an interviewee who suggested it was important to look at structural problems that put off women or put up barriers to women, rather than only encouraging more women to stand. Relatedly, the issue of intimidation was raised by candidates in response to The Electoral Commission survey, which may affect women more than men.

Ethnic minorities

Although there are now academics working on understanding the ethnicity of UK election candidates, there is not yet a comprehensive survey of candidates by ethnicity.

Again we can extrapolate from the diversity of existing politicians to assume that a similar situation exists for candidates. In local government, a 2013 ‘census’ of local councillors suggests that only 4% of councillors are from ethnic minorities27. In Parliament, there are currently 52 MPs from ethnic minorities who make up around 8% of the house. Around 14% of the population are from ethnic minorities28.

It is also likely there will be differences between ethnic minorities. For example, one interviewee told us that only five Romanians stood in 2018’s local elections, even though Romanian is now the second most-populous non-British nationality in the UK after Polish29.

Lower income, manual workers, lower education

There has been no survey on the class or income of those who stand for election, though underrepresentation of lower social classes and those with fewer education qualifications is perceived to exist. Again, we can look at elected representatives to hint at the situation with candidates: three per cent of the 2015 House of Commons intake were manual workers30.

A related piece of evidence comes from The Electoral Commission’s survey of 2017 general election candidates, which showed that one in five thought it was hard to raise the £500 deposit, a ratio that increased for those candidates also declaring disabilities or long-term health conditions31.

The 2013 census of councillors states that nearly 60% of councillors had a degree, “while 13% were educated to GCE A level (or equivalent) and 11.2% to GCSE level (or equivalent). 5.2% of councillors had no qualifications”32.

Disabled people

The extent to which disabled people face significant hurdles to candidacy is not clear. There was an outcry when the UK Government’s Access to Elected Office fund closed down, presumably reflecting the higher costs of standing for election as a disabled person, which was felt to be an unfair to candidacy. However, The Electoral Commission’s 2017 survey of candidates found that only 39% of survey respondents with a disability or health problem were aware of the Scottish equivalent, the Elected Office Fund33.

In terms of elected representatives, the Guardian reports that there are five disabled MPs in the 2017 entry group34, while the local councillor census says 13% of councillors report long-term health problem or disability.

Young people

Elected representatives in the UK are typically older than the average population, so it is likely that young people are underrepresented at candidacy. The Electoral Commission suggests that candidates are typically between 55-64-years-old. The research noted an increase in young people standing over time, such as in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2016 and 2017: in the former, 7% of candidates were aged between 18 and 24 years while in the latter the figure was 15% of candidates.

Mycock and Tonge suggest the average age of a politician is over 5035. Parliamentarians must be bringing the average down, since the average age of local councillors, according to the 2013 census, is just over 60. Fewer than one in five councillors is under 50 years old36.

“We show young people our poster of 60 councillors and ask them who they relate to. Nobody!”

Membership of political parties

The most common route to candidacy is via a political party, so it may be useful to look at the demographics of party membership. YouGov membership surveys conducted after the 2017 general election show that party membership is at least 96% white, largely of the ABC1 social grades (77% of Labour, 86% of Conservatives, 88% of Liberal Democrats), and only Labour has close to a gender-balanced membership. The average age of a Liberal Democrat member is 52, a Labour party member is 53 and a Conservative party member is 5737.

A sizeable majority — 70% and above — of party members from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Scottish National Party all say that they want to see more women, people with disabilities, working class people, people from ethnic minorities and young people in the commons38.

Interventions

Our conversations with experts suggested a range of interventions that could be made to increase the representativeness of candidates for public office. Of course, without better research surveys, we would not be able to properly identify the problem or know whether proposed interventions are working.

Remove the deposits from certain elections

One intervention that may help people from lower social grades to stand for parliament, police and crime commissioner or some mayoral offices, is to remove the deposits for such elections. This idea is supported by the Electoral Commission and presumably would have significant political support outside the two biggest parties — particularly among independents. It would likely require the government to remove the free mailshot to which parliamentary candidates are currently eligible. However, there is no deposit for local elections and it is not clear this has resulted in more diverse candidacies.

Better process, information, encouragement

The evidence we have seen suggests that candidates believe that there is adequate information on how to run and the process is not too onerous. Democracy Club has previously done a small level of research into whether there would be value in the digital transformation of the candidacy process, with the intention of making candidacy more accessible. Candidates told us that the process was not a significant problem for them. Again, we only interviewed people that did stand as candidates. Our research is corroborated by respondents to The Electoral Commission’s 2017 survey, which also suggests that candidates found the process straightforward and they felt there was enough information on how to become a candidate.

Notwithstanding this research, there are several projects that exist to encourage people to stand. The Local Government Association (LGA) runs a programme called Be A Councillor, which takes a different group as its target each year. The programme is essentially a marketing campaign that partners with local authorities to provide information through events, microsites and guidebooks ‘to encourage understanding and dispel myths.’ Community organisations help organise similar events: interviewees told us about events on ‘what it’s like to be a councillor, governor or magistrate’ for ethnic minority audiences run by councillors from ethnic minorities.

Partly, a desire to stand is probably related to the more significant problem of weak public understanding of governance and democracy:

“People think councils equal bin collection and potholes…People don’t get how far local government is in schools, health, parks, museums, cultural events, voluntary sector partnerships…”

“[Candidates must recognise that governance] is complex, there are many tiers [of government] and it differs across the country… most people switch off, but to be a councillor you do need to understand that.”

Several interventions involve encouraging more candidates from underrepresented groups. Organisations from government, political parties, civil society and media have worked on these interventions, such as #AskHerToStand. These are to be welcomed, but with recognition of the risks of encouraging more entrants into a system that is unreformed. If there are reasons that women have been historically excluded from a system, pushing more people into it may risk disappointment by those new candidates or they could receive unfair blame for not succeeding despite this renewed attention.

There are several party-based campaigns working on this area, such as the Conservative Party’s WomenWinning or Labour Party’s Women Leading Labour. Boosting women’s representation through all-women candidate shortlists has resulted in greater number of women representatives. It may be time to consider all-underrepresented-group shortlists. Interviewees told us that most political parties are committed to improving diversity, including diversity of careers and work experience, partly due to their keenness to avoid the ‘professional politician’ label. This may assist people from minority ethnicities, as they are less likely to be from the professional classes. More research into the efforts of the parties would be valuable.

One last intervention, perhaps aimed more at citizenship education than at preparing young people for office, is that of the youth council. These fill a need for education and provide comparable experience to young people. In theory, youth councils could encourage and familiarise standing for office, debating, voting and being in office. There are some perceptions that these are only for children of pushy parents, or the self-motivated, but one youth council we spoke to suggested that this was not necessarily the case. It has seen one former member go on to represent a city council ward as one of the city’s youngest elected members. We were also told that the councils can be particularly popular among the children of migrants.

Better data

Broadly, studies with significant sample sizes that run over time seem vital if we are to gain a proper understanding of the representativeness of election candidates and the effectiveness of interventions designed to bring about more equal representation.

One area that several interviewees pointed to in terms of a quick data win would be on gender: getting parties to publish gender data on their candidates. This kind of gender gap publishing has resulted in headline news when it comes to pay, for example. In this field, there is a campaign for the entry into force of s.106 of the Equalities Act, which could be introduced with secondary legislation. This legislation would force political parties to publish gender data on their candidates. In the experience of Democracy Club, the central offices of political parties rarely have comprehensive nationwide data, but presumably passing the legislation would be enough to ensure the parties would make a greater effort.

Lastly, it would be good to see more data on the experience of independent candidates, who seem likely to have a significantly difference experience of standing for election than those standing for experienced political parties. Local officials told us that there is not much support or advice for independents, that officials spend much more time with them, but that independents can be more drive by local problems or agendas and are sometimes more motivated to raise public awareness.

Information about elections

Democracy Club’s work largely pertains to providing voter information, so we particularly want to understand if there are groups underserved by election information.

Electoral ignorance

Survey data, expert interviews and anecdotal evidence from feedback to Democracy Club websites suggests that the average population has a poor understanding or poor awareness of elections. For example, “quite a lot of young people didn’t understand why Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn weren’t on their ballot papers” from election officials; echoing anecdotal data from feedback to Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk service.

Concerningly, the public are confident in their wrong beliefs too. Recent research for The Electoral Commission suggests that 92% say ‘they are confident they know how to cast their vote’, but 49% went on to incorrectly state that you have to take your polling card with you to vote, and 34% incorrectly believe you need ID. More worryingly for actual outcomes, only 38% of respondents could correctly identify that there were elections in their area that year39.

Where people get information and where gaps exist

Unfortunately, there is not much information on the public’s sources of information about elections. There is virtually no data at all on who gets what information.

The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement is perhaps most useful. It surveyed people to understand the reach and importance of ‘election-related news or information’. Unsurprisingly, TV and radio news reached the most people with election information, while, for contrast, political blogs only reached a small number. Only 36% of respondents reported that that had had face-to-face discussions with others, but of those who did, 72% found them useful. Happily, those responding ‘none of the above’ to the survey, i.e. they managed to miss all election information, were only 8% of the whole40. The Hansard data was not recorded against demographics, so we don’t know if groups underrepresented elsewhere are particularly likely or unlikely to access certain types of media for election information.

A particular highlight of the Hansard study is the difference in media reach and importance. For example, 49% saw printed publicity from the parties, e.g. leaflets, billboards, but only 34% found these important in deciding how to vote; whereas 25% saw debates/interviews with politicians and 74% of those found it useful41. This could be explained away if it turned out that those people knew they would find it useful and thus sought it out, but we might read into this that the 75% who did not see debates are missing out on something. There would be value in more research here, as well as what kind of debates people are seeing and whether audiences reflect the populations of the area.

Returning to the survey: of the 6% that visited ‘other politically-related websites, such as blogs’ only 38% said they were useful, which could be of concern to Democracy Club, though the fact that only 6% recorded visiting such sites means the sample to then ask whether it was useful was small. The survey also showed that young people are more politically engaged and active online than any other group42. A youth council organiser told us that in advance of the EU Referendum, ‘young people relied on online information only, they weren’t interested in mainstream media.’ chance that a 20-year-old voted In our short interviews on the street in Bristol, nobody told us they lacked for information. Interviewees reported getting leaflets through their letterboxes, reading the news, chatting with friends in person and via social media. As one man said ‘this is quite a political area’ and residents ‘get a lot of stuff from the Green Party and Labour’. The local community organisation suggested the area had ‘quite a lot of activists’ and suggested that the value of constant political activity between elections probably helped informedness at election time. Clearly, this does not happen in all areas and while we assume that close races receive more leaflets, we have not seen data on this. Again, given the parties’ political strategies, there may be intra-constituency or even intra-ward differences in who receives what information, which could exclude certain groups.

Some local authorities offer an email reminder service for residents who sign up to receive them, including election alerts. These provide the bare minimum of information: the date and perhaps a polling location. Democracy Club aims to do more research into these reminders in future.

Local authorities have also told us that they are nervous about providing candidate information, despite their potential well-placed status to do so and demand from citizens. An interviewee told us that there was a demand for ‘pictures of candidates and statements from them like at Police and Crime Commissioner elections’.

One council told us there was a lack of awareness as to what works for people. They suggested that bus adverts, which have been popular in the past — certainly in London — are expensive and evidence as to their success is vague. The distributed nature of Uk election governance may mean that there is little shared intelligence between councils about what works for voter information, let alone whether certain groups are excluded from this information.

Migrants may be a group that faces a particular information gap. Interviewees explained that there is a very little knowledge among migrants of their eligibility to register and to vote in elections, particularly among Commonwealth citizens. Even if there is awareness of eligibility, the nature of migration means arriving in an entirely new political domain, without the benefits of any formal or informal civic education.

Language presents an obvious barrier to remaining informed about elections and candidates. We have not seen data on what information is provided in what language, but several interviewees told us it was likely that non-English readers would be left out of most election communication. One charity reported that in migrant families it commonly falls to the children to translate and explain official communications to their parents.

Interventions

Given the lack of data, we can only make assumptions about the interventions that might create equal access to and use of election information.

In the case of younger people, providing information online and through peer education may be useful. Ensuring that a quick online search about elections gets results is something that Democracy Club have taken on, but there is more that could be done, through better reminders for example. Elections information is probably more effective when its recipient has a good basic understanding of democracy, something the Cabinet Office is attempting to improve for young people with their low-cost ‘Democracy Ambassadors’ programme43. This aims to create peer educators among the young. It’s not clear how this will be evaluated.

In regard to student populations, we noted that The Electoral Commission’s 2015 budget for public awareness of elections (some £3.2m) included some SMS blasts targeted at student campuses, but did not find any evaluation of these efforts44. Openness around planning by The Electoral Commission and local governments, about who is being targeted, when and how, might aid civil society groups to better coordinate their work and ensure that all audiences are targeted more effectively.

In terms of migrant populations, and the problems caused by languages, interviewees suggested that the best way to reach South East Asian migrants and Caribbean and African migrants is via faith networks and religious institutions. For newly arrived migrants, resources in mother tongue languages could make a difference as could the use of community influencers over social media. This may be particularly useful for women migrants, who are more likely to be family migrants as opposed to ‘pioneer migrants’ who arrive first in search of work. One interviewee told us that male migrants are more likely to interact with the state, whereas women’s only contact with the state might be through the NHS. This is particularly true for South Asian migrants, for whom women are typically underrepresented in the labour market. A coordinated effort to ensure that non-partisan explanatory materials are in every school, GP surgery, library, jobcentre, community centre and religious building would seem valuable.

More broadly, we might question the effectiveness of one-size-fits-all elections communications, which would describe most election leaflets, representing half of all election spending. The use of social media for targeted political advertising is often criticised, but if it allows voters to hear about the issues that particularly interest them, it may be more successful at increasing knowledge and potentially turnout. This is true across cultures too, as interviewees told us that Poles and Romanians responding more effectively to different narrative framing of voting and elections.

More research on in-person election debates or hustings would be valuable. There are hints in the Audit of Political Engagement, above, that suggest debates may be particularly important in helping people to decide how to vote, but that they do not currently have a wide reach. A greater number of debates could be arranged, taking care to ensure accessibility and representative audiences. New York City’s state institution for elections provides an exemplar: it is legally obliged to run debates, for which it ensures live broadcasts with translation. On a smaller scale, debates could be recorded online and translations crowdsourced by volunteers. In Bristol, a local community organisation told us they found it difficult to identify and contact all the candidates for an area in order to run a hustings. In one of our interviews in Easton, a 20-year old man, working as a cashier while studying at an FE college, expressed concern that he had never actually met any candidates or politicians.

It is fair to say the UK’s local government structures are not completely clear. System changes could improve understanding. One community group told us that because Bristol had a mayor, it made politics more real and understandable for people. However, at the same time they pointed out that Bristol is part of the West of England Combined Authority, and nobody knew what that was or who the mayor was. In local elections, where Democracy Club’s work battles a tide of indifference and lack of public information on candidates, there are systemic questions about the role of local government and their actual powers. Even if information on elections were provided perfectly to everybody, if it simply confirmed their existing assumptions that councillors are old white people that only deal with bin collections and potholes, then clearly information alone will not affect participation.

Turnout

Registration, candidacy and information are important, but people still need to mark a ballot paper. But who turns out and who doesn’t? Are there significant differences between groups beyond simply reflecting the same discrepancies that we see in registration?

For context, the 2017 general election saw the highest turnout in 20 years at 68.8%, following the 72.2% turnout at the EU referendum and 84.6% at the Scottish independence referendum. In the postwar decades, turnout at general elections has typically exceeded 70%, though it fell significantly after 1997. Turnout in local elections is generally around 30%, but in places will fall as low as 15%. It can be much higher if a local election coincides with a general election. Turnout for devolved administration elections is better than for local elections, but worse than in general elections: turnout hovers in the low- or mid-40s for elections to the National Assembly for Wales; low or mid 50s for the Scottish Parliament; and 50s to 60s for Northern Ireland Assembly45.

Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, there is no clear picture of turnout by different groups. Overall turnout is calculated by local authorities; it is the total votes cast as a proportion of registered voters, but this tells us nothing about the characteristics of those turning out or not. If we are to understand whether there is a difference between age groups or between ethnicities, we must use survey data. This comes with its own issues. People do not always know if they voted, nor can they seem to accurately predict whether they will vote. In a GfK survey for The Electoral Commission an ambitious 60% said they ‘always vote’ in local elections. Unless the survey sample was badly set up, this is clearly not true. An ambitious 78% of survey respondents said they were likely to vote at May 2018 local elections (the fieldwork was conducted in Jan/Feb 2018), despite only 38% of respondents where elections were happening in May correctly identifying that they had elections46. The authors of the British Election Study, the most robust survey conducted, suggest that people who fill in surveys are possibly the same people who vote. The story is repeated a local level, with a survey of 500 people in two wards of Bristol that recorded 69% of people saying they vote in local elections (the actual turnout from the last election in the wards was 51% and 41%). Even at level of the quick interviews we conducted in the streets of Easton, we found it was the people who voted who would stop and chat, whereas the people who told you they did not vote would barely break their stride.

Young people

There is good evidence that older people are more likely to turnout to vote. From its work on both the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the British Election Study team reports that ‘older people are much more likely to have voted than young people.’47 At the general election in 2017, those in their late 20s were more likely than not to have voted, and as age increases, people are more and more likely to vote, up to about 70 years old, where the margins of error increases. There is an around 80% chance that a 70-year-old voted, something like a 45% chance that a 20-year-old voted48.

Image one: British Election Study graph showing probability of voting against age for both the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

Among 18-24s, self-reported ‘certainty to vote’ has risen over recent years to 44%, but this is a long way from the 75% and 76% certainty to vote among those of between 55-64s and 65-74s49.

The reasons for low turnout among the young probably mirror those for why registration of young people is lower, with additional barriers including uncertainty as to the process, finding the polling location, getting reminders, and the lack of a formed habit (“I always vote after work…”). Perhaps relatedly, people aged between 18 and 24 were ten percentage points less likely to support a party than average. Further, only 41% of 18-34s report being happy with the choice of political parties available, compared with 61% of 35-54s50.

As an organiser with young people told us:

“It’s so stuffy — a foisty parish hall with some old people in, and you not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

A survey of these age groups to identify what gets them to the polls, or not, would be valuable. Identifying the reasons why people do vote may be useful. There are some stories that could be investigated in the data from the British Election Study: rapid increases in the probability of turnout between 25-35 years and again between 50-60 years — what it is that is driving the increasing turnout at those ages or life-stages?

Ethnic minorities

The best available data on turnout at the last general election suggests that ethnic minority voter turnout was five percentage points lower than white voter turnout51. This data is not from the ‘gold-standard’ British Election Study, whose questionnaire does ask about ethnicity, but who’s sample size is too small to draw conclusions. Previous research into ethnic minority turnout suggests that turnout is especially low among first-generation minorities, and while it improves for second-generation minorities, it is still lower than for white people52. However, when registration is taken into account, the turnout rates of BME people and white people are similar, ‘suggesting that lower turnout among BME is driven by lower registration rates’53.

One interviewee suggested that there is a larger gap between ethnic minority voter turnout and white turnout at local elections than there is at general elections, suggesting this would be worth further investigation.

There is some other data that might help our understanding of this issue. Surveys that ask people about their ‘certainty to vote’ show that 53% of ethnic minorities say they are ‘certain to vote’, compared with 63% of white people54. People of ethnic minorities are more likely (15% against 6%) to say that electoral fraud is ‘very common’ where they live. The Commons library report quotes research that suggests that people of ethnic minorities are more likely to vote if someone of the same ethnicity is standing55.

Lower social classes

Surveys suggest that lower social classes are less likely to turnout than upper social classes. The social grades D and E are the least likely to vote (61%) versus turnout of 73% of members of AB56.

NatCen reports that there has been an increased tendency for working class people to abstain from voting since Blair’s 1997 victory57. This has been explained by the perception of or reality of the political exclusion of the working class, but more research is necessary in this area.

“Even accessing polling stations, public places, when you’re generally made to feel unwelcome in public places, may be difficult.”

People with disabilities

We found no survey data on disabled people and voting, but there are suggestions that people with physical disabilities are less likely to vote, despite having a greater level of registration than average. Organisations responding to the Cabinet Office’s call for evidence on access to elections in 2017 claimed that a significantly smaller proportion of people with learning disabilities turnout to vote, varying from one in eight to 30%. Mencap estimates the number of people with learning disabilities in the UK at 1.1m, suggesting ‘this is a significant proportion of the electorate that may be being overlooked’58.

Geography

There is no comprehensive data on turnout by area. This is unfortunate, as there may be social norming effects, or other effects of place, that affect turnout. Alternatively, it might simply reveal a preponderance of other factors already identified, such as youth, ethnicity or income.

While there is some debate over whether turnout is defined by those who vote versus the eligible population or by those who vote versus the number of the electoral register, it should be possible to collate local turnout data to ward level.

There is data on the turnout differences between the nations, which suggests no consistent pattern when it comes to turnout variations between England, Wales and Scotland. One constant is that turnout is typically several percentage points lower in Northern Ireland59.

We might also expect turnout at to different based on the perceived marginality of the seat, which has been true at past general elections60. At the general election of 2017, however, McInnes found no link between turnout and the ‘safeness’ of seat. The number of safe seats is high: “418 of the 650 constituencies have been held by the same party at each of the last three General Elections, but the average 2017 turnout in these constituencies (68.5%) is only slightly lower than in the 232 seats that have changed hands at least once in that period (69.3%)”61.

Interventions

Several interviewees believed that lowering the voting age could improve turnout among young people. This is because it is believed that habits could be more easily formed at 16, while voters are still in school, which will then last a lifetime. The authors of the British Election Study suggest that a good predictor of whether someone will vote is whether they voted the last time. Thus a healthy democracy should try to ensure that people vote on their first opportunity to do so. Lowering the voting age so that voters were still in school could make it significantly easier to educate, inform and encourage turnout.

Another approach to increasing turnout across all groups would be to encourage more non-partisan get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, work that is largely seen as the responsibility of political parties. Interviewees suggested that GOTV efforts can be perceived as partisan, depending on the areas that the efforts are being made in. One organisation told us that this fear resulted in some reluctance from certain faith groups to encourage their communities to turnout. The answer may be to encourage turnout everywhere among every group. Every organisation with access to people could play a role. This includes faith groups, media owners and employers large and small. We have seen occasional innovative efforts, particularly in media and digital, such as Uber offering rides to the polling station or the TV channel E4 shutting down programming for two hours on election day (or rather replacing programmes with a testcard message telling people to go vote). On the other hand, organisations like Transport for London that have privileged access to millions of potential voters, have previously told Democracy Club that they were not well resourced enough to support efforts to improve turnout, and large companies with access to millions of contact points with voters do nothing.

Democracy Club is founded partly upon an assumption that voters require information to turnout to vote. As feedback to our website pointed out:

“I am looking for information on the candidates I am supposed to be voting for on Thursday. I cannot find anything on either candidate. If they cannot be bothered to get the information out there why should I bother turning out to vote???”

This could be one reason that general elections see far greater turnout than local elections: it is harder to miss a general election, harder not to know something about the parties’ plans at least, if not the individual candidates. Where voters are time-poor, less well-educated, have a disability or have access to local knowledge, they are less likely to be able to learn about the election and their choices. We continue to believe that making information accessible is likely to improve turnout for all groups, but especially those mentioned.

Some interviewees believed that online voting would increase turnout, particularly among the young. We are not aware of robust data in favour of this argument and of course there are significant security risks with online voting that are better dealt with elsewhere. It may be possible to run experiments with local elections, perhaps community, town and parish councils, to test the effects, but this would require more accurate turnout data and excellent experimental methods.

“Online voting would dramatically increase the numbers… Just the walk to the polling station turns people off.”

As ever, better data is required, particularly on local elections. All the data seen in research reports and surveys refers to general elections. Even this data does not actually tell us why people do not vote nor whether there are different reasons for not voting within different groups. A mix of qualitative and quantitative methods is necessary to tease this out further. Moreover, this research should focus equally on local elections, where we have no good turnout data. Given that the difference between the total electoral registers for local elections and parliamentary elections is not vast (a couple of percentage points), then something is going wrong on the way to turnout — if we desire a well-functioning democracy with high turnout, it behoves us to find out what it is.

Overarching influences on electoral participation

Underrepresentation in the elections process might be affected by or correlate with underrepresentation in other areas of political activity or in lived experiences more generally. It might be useful, therefore, to seek interventions in areas that prima facie do not appear to relate to elections.

Non-electoral political engagement

Non-electoral political engagement matters because democracy is about more than simply elections, just as power is more complex than electing someone to govern. One community group told us that “real power in the city is business, the university, the NHS and the police….councillors are now just caseworkers rather [than those who] set the direction of the city.”

Political engagement outside of elections does not strictly follow the patterns seen so far. There is some recent research that suggests that young, white people are more likely to sign petitions or engage in boycotts than their young, non-white peers62. Research from the EHRC and Heath et al suggests something similar63. Further, those with more years of education are more likely to have taken social or political actions or joined civil groups. However, people from ethnic minorities are more likely to have done civic activity, defined as charity work or work with religious organisations, than average. And NatCen found that the 18-35s are most likely to participate in political groups, if not political parties64.

Political understanding and knowledge

The importance of knowledge and understanding, which may vary among different groups (and different groups may place differing levels of importance on that knowledge) is something that has come up at every stage of the elections process used to form the structure of this report. The discussion around civic education, or citizenship studies, tends to focus on young people, but it seems likely that all groups could benefit from this and a significant intervention in this space may have greater effects than tinkering with an individual element of the elections process.

Trust

One of the factors that could affect all elements of participation is trust. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes research shows trust in politics and the government has fallen from 38% in the 1980s to 20% or below, since 200865. Ipsos-MORI suggest trust in politicians has been terrible since the 1980s, with an average of one in five trusting them66. When asked about their local MP, however, people tend to offer a higher score67.

Levels of trust are not uniform. People from C2DE grades are more likely than average to believe that politicians engage in “self-serving behaviour and [are] working in the interests of the rich and powerful”68.

The problem of trust may go beyond elections and politicians, to all civic life. The lack of trust may have their roots in problems outside elections and politics. For example, there is evidence that those who face discrimination have less general trust in society and, correspondingly, show lower levels of participation69.

Personal efficacy, assertiveness

Only 34% of people believe they can affect political change but perhaps surprisingly, young people (18-24s) have the strongest sense of this. Ethnic minorities have stronger sense of political efficacy than white people, but lower interest in politics (a record high in 2018 however, at 48% cf 57%). Youth political efficacy is at a recent high of 41% — higher than average; interest up to 41% vs 57% average — that’s still 59% not interested in politics70. This is not an easy number to shift.

Relatedly, Citizens Advice found that “those who didn’t identify as assertive were less likely to engage, seek to influence, or complain when things went wrong. Citizens perceive democratic channels for influence as largely public or combative, which turns off a majority of the public.”

Less surprisingly, social classes with greater incomes are more interested and have a greater belief in their political efficacy.

There’s also a geographical split here too. The South of England and London feel they have more influence on local decision-making. Only 11% of those in Wales feel locally influential (though note that n=108)71. Wales also scored worst of geographical regions in terms of knowledge of politics and efficacy more generally.

“Democracy is good; to have a voice, you know? Even so, you make yourself known [but] do they hear you? Do they do anything? Is there an improvement? Promises are not kept. Sometimes you see an improvement, but not all the time.”

Financial precarity

Citizens Advice also suggest that financial precarity decreases participation in politics. They suggest that the lack of ‘headspace’ to deal with any issues that aren’t immediately affecting their lives or to get through another form or another decision leads to disengagement in democratic process.

Interventions

Better fit with everyday life

There is room for continued iterative improvement to make the elections process more accessible to voters. In their 2015 report, ‘Going with the grain: why democracy needs to fit with modern life’, Citizens Advice suggested three principles that should be at the core of any approach to efforts to improve democratic participation. They suggest that ‘information should be published and presented so that it is as easily accessible and understandable as possible’; that ‘processes and channels for influence should be co-located in the places where people spend time’ and that ‘user experience and [user] journey should be at the centre of all democratic processes’72.

Seeing the elections process as a user journey as DC attempts to do, is good plan. For example, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if you vote, you should be told who won… Once you’ve registered, perhaps it makes sense to receive some information on when the election is, who the candidates are and where you vote.

Better perceptions

It is possible to turn around public perception of institutions, including those the lack the public’s trust. One parallel could be drawn to the police recruitment efforts of the early 2000s. The Home Office planned to recruit thousands more officers, but struggled partly due to negative perceptions of the role. The Home Office spent £15m on a recruitment campaign which featured celebrities asking themselves whether they could perform a specific example of a police role. The “Police: Could you?” campaign was claimed to have resulted in 66,000 applications, improved respect for the role and even a reduction in perceived levels of crime73. Investment in public understanding and education as to the role of elected politicians could help with improving their public perception and reduce abusive behaviour towards them.

Civic education

Many of our interviewees, and many authors of reports before this one, are convinced of the need for better education. One leader of a youth council said young people themselves demand better citizenship education, from ‘demystifying the basics’ to understanding the different levels of governance.

“The curriculum covers national but not local, not the stuff you can touch and see.”

“Kids wish teachers weren’t afraid to talk politics.. They don’t care about the teacher’s position, just want neutral tuition. But the truth is that teachers lack knowledge too!”

Interviewees suggested that civic education should begin in primary schools, because secondary schools are more likely to lack the time or freedom from the curriculum necessary. The National Citizens Service programmes for teenagers, a programme which represents over 90% of government spending on youth services, typically provides some civic education, but interviewees suggested this was brief — as little as one hour of citizenship teaching.

It does not take a huge leap to imagine that other ages would benefit from civic education too. There are gaps relating to the knowledge necessary to participate between elections, such as to whom to address concerns and how to attempt to create change. The likely inequalities of knowledge between groups lead to political inequality.

Systemic reform

More accessible processes and information, and better education, may still not solve engagement if the system is flawed. Education may just make it clearer to more people that the system is flawed. The intervention required here, then, is cultural and political systems change. People may be turned off by the conduct and culture of politics:

“We have encouraged young people to come to council meetings and they’re blown away that adults fall out and argue.”

How that reform should be conducted, what reforms would be most effective, moves into the territory of debates over fundamental constitutional and electoral reform, way beyond this research report, but we cannot ignore the idea that electoral participation is not affected by our current political systems.

Conclusions

The process of conducting this research and of writing this report has led to some unanticipated conclusions.

First, it is difficult to clearly distinguish underrepresented groups and factors that lead to underrepresentation. This report attempted to separate out the stages of electoral engagement and then analyse demographic groups in order to spot problems that could be targeted. Sometimes this approach finds something actionable — such as the under registration of young people at university — but largely, the reasons for underrepresentation in the electoral process run across social groups and demographics. The reasons for non-participation are multifaceted, complex and deeply cultural or psychological.

Second, the research leads us to suggest that it is not really the process that presents a serious barrier to participation. It is not so difficult to register, it is not so difficult to either get a postal vote or get to a polling station. Instead, the barriers are psychological, cultural, attitudinal and knowledge-based: what do you believe about politics and the state, its impact upon your life, and is there a duty to take part — or is it just one of those things you mean to do but were a bit busy that day. While they are related, it is not directly your age nor the colour of your skin that is stopping you from registration; it is your beliefs, your priorities, your education, your income, your life experiences and your information sources.

Third, the lack of broad and deep data on electoral participation renders it difficult to understand where the problems lie and how to go about solving them. One or two longitudinal surveys of a relatively small sample size are hardly sufficient to understand how well our democracy is functioning. If we consider how much effort is put into measuring the economy, or how in order to make good public health decisions, the government relies upon robust statistical studies and other quality evidence sources, why do we not have the same for the health of democratic engagement? Even where there is sound evidence on who is engaging and who is not, there is precious little to tell us why, to explain the causes of these gaps. This must change, either through the priorities of academic funding councils or through the sustained action of public institutions.

To begin to solve the lack of data, a comprehensive piece of audience segmentation could be commissioned. A survey and analysis that produced a statistically sound UK-wide audience segmentation by behaviour and attitudes towards electoral participation, could give us a clearer sense of where to intervene. It might identify clusters of people — we could imagine the “never-evers”, the “voted-oncers”, the “too-busy”, the “duty-bound” and the “super-keen advocates” — to whom appropriate interventions could be tested. An accompanying piece of research could involve deep ethnographic study of people’s experience of different stages of an election within the context of their day-to-day lives. Annual surveys with large representative samples should be employed or improved. The budget and coordination necessary for these research projects may go beyond what is possible from academic research grants, suggesting an expanded role for The Electoral Commission or perhaps a new civic institution.

Fourth, new research might show us that a single intervention is unlikely to be enough. People that are underrepresented in the elections process may face a multiple and complex overlapping causes for their under-participation. This is a pattern seen in other policy areas, where government departments must work together and share resources in order to solve a problem that none of them could alone. Citizens Advice touched on this when they related financial precarity with under-participation: for people worried about the state of their finances, voting might just slip through the to-do list, simply not ranking as highly in importance. There may be more research done on financial precarity than there is on electoral engagement; if so, what can we learn from it?

Fifth, the lack of data and of easy answers should not blind us to making incremental improvements that aim to serve everyone. Where there are accessibility barriers to the electoral process, they should be tackled. It still makes sense to solve basic informational problems like how you register, when, where you vote, and where are elections happening. To focus on barriers that we know people have and that can be relatively easily and affordably solved and tested. It seems likely that alongside accessibility, a sensible next step is better education. Comprehensive civic education for all, weighted perhaps towards the young and those adults with less formal education. This would also have the potential to impact positively on self-perceived political efficacy. We may need to consider new civic institutions to take on this role.

Lastly, there is only so much that incremental improvements will achieve. Better education will only get us so far. Before long, it becomes necessary to consider the reforms that may have to be made to our political structures and systems — and beyond — to our cultural and social life — with the aim of maximal electoral and political participation. Today, the UK may currently have the opportunity to ask those questions. In the midst of — or as a result of — a situation of political turmoil, perhaps we face an opportunity better than in recent decades, to hold a conversation that involves everyone about the democracy we want. The people of the UK may have the opportunity to consider and develop a system that maximises the participation of all at every stage and that can cope with the multiple and complex ways power is exercised in the 21st century. There is a rich British tradition of tinkering on the edges of our political processes, of making piecemeal reform to allay collapse or revolution. That may not be enough if we are serious about ending underrepresentation in democracy.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to express his gratitude to everyone who volunteered time to discuss the topic with the author. Those contacted specifically for this research are listed below, but many others contributed indirectly. Thanks too to those who stopped for a brief conversation in Easton, Bristol on an overcast day in October.

  • Samantha Atkinson and Sharon Salvanos, Kirklees Council
  • Sarah Childs, Birkbeck, University of London
  • Patrick English, University of Exeter
  • Elisabeth Pop, Hope Not Hate
  • Michelle Ross, Kirklees Youth Council
  • Imran Sanaullah, Patchwork Foundation
  • Maria Sobolewska, University of Manchester
  • Rachel Stevens and Michael Barrett, Local Government Association
  • Stacy Yelland and Tamsin Harcort, Up Our Street

Thanks also to Unbound Philanthropy for their continued support of Democracy Club.

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