Voter engagement in the UK - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

2  Introduction

3. Levels of turnout at UK elections and the percentage of people that are correctly registered to vote has declined substantially in recent decades. Although turnout for the 2010 general election was the highest since 1997, only 65% of registered voters participated, and turnout levels for local authority, European Parliament and Police and Crime Commissioner elections are even worse. At every local council and European Parliament election in the last decade that has not coincided with a general election the turnout has been less than 50%. There are also millions of people missing from the electoral registers—it is estimated that 7.5 million people entitled to vote at an election are not correctly registered to vote, and that there are millions of British citizens living overseas that are not registered to vote at all.[1] These figures indicate a substantial lack of engagement of the public with elections in the UK.

The electorate

4. Eligibility to register to vote and participate in UK elections varies depending on the type of election being held. For general (parliamentary) elections, eligible voters are British or Commonwealth citizens, as well as citizens of the Republic of Ireland, aged 18 and over, who are resident in the UK, as well as British citizens living abroad who were resident in the UK within the last 15 years.[2] For local and European Parliament elections,[3] citizens of other European Union member states aged 18 and over living in the UK are also entitled to vote, but British citizens living abroad are not.[4]

5. In 2013 the number of people registered to vote—the electorate—for general elections was 46,139,900.[5] This figure is 0.5% lower than in 2012. The Electoral Commission has estimated that the most recent electoral register is only 84.7% complete. This equates to 7.5 million people that are eligible to vote in UK elections not being correctly registered to vote, though the Electoral Commission has stated that this figure does not mean there should be an additional 7.5 million people registered to vote, since many of these people may still have been included on the register but in an inaccurate entry.[6] The number of people not correctly registered to vote has risen substantially since 2000, when it is estimated there were 3.9 million people not correctly registered to vote. The Electoral Commission has cited "higher population mobility" as one of the main reasons for the increase.[7] There are also several million British citizens living overseas—many of whom will be entitled to vote in some UK elections—but only 15,818 overseas voters are currently registered to vote across Great Britain.[8]


6. Voter turnout varies substantially depending on the type of election. General elections have by far the highest turnout, while the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in 2012 had the lowest turnout of any election in recent history. Turnout for recent elections and referendums is detailed in the table below.

Turnout for recent elections and referendums
Type of election (or referendum) Turnout (as percentage of electorate)
General elections2001: 59.4%

2005: 61.4%

2010: 65.1%

Local elections2010: 63.1% (same day as general election)

2011: 42.6%

2012: 32%

2013: 31%

2014: 36%*

European Parliament elections 1999: 24%

2004: 38.5%

2009: 34.5%

2014: 35.6%

Scottish Parliament elections 2003: 51.8%

2007: 49.4%

2011: 50.4%

Welsh Assembly elections 2003: 38.2%

2007: 43.7%

2011: 42.2%

Northern Ireland Assembly elections 2003: 63%

2007: 62.3%

2011: 54.5%

Police and Crime Commissioner elections 2012: 15.1%
Alternative vote referendum 2011: 42%
Scottish independence referendum 2014: 84.6%
* Figure is for turnout for local elections in England. In Northern Ireland, turnout for the 2014 local elections was 51.3%.

7. Although turnout for the 2010 general election was the highest for any general election since 1997, the number of registered voters that did not participate—15,909,857—was still larger than the turnout for any one party. When the number of people eligible to register to vote but not correctly registered to vote, are reckoned in the total, the number of people that did not participate at the most recent general election is larger than the number of votes cast for candidates of the two largest parties, or of both of the Coalition parties.

Our inquiry

8. In the light of declining levels of registration and turnout we launched an inquiry into voter engagement in the UK. We wanted to investigate the reasons for low levels of registration and turnout, and find out what could be done to improve them. The full terms of reference for our inquiry are annexed to this Report.[9] As part of our deliberations we have heard from think-tanks, campaign groups, academics and organisations representing specific groups, as well as the Electoral Commission, individual Electoral Registration Officers and the Minister for the Constitution. We have also received a large amount of correspondence and written evidence, including a significant volume from members of the public, as well as from community groups, a former Member of Parliament, an independent candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and others. Our inquiry was also informed by an informal event at the University of Sheffield, where members of the Committee discussed some of the key questions we have been looking at with members of the public.[10] We are grateful to everyone that contributed to our inquiry, particularly to those for whom this was their first occasion engaging with a Select Committee. A list of all those who gave evidence to the Committee is on pages 103-109.

9. Democracy is working less well than it used to and we need to move swiftly to pre-empt a crisis. The scale of the response must be equal to the task. Millions of people are missing from the UK's electoral registers. Many of those who are registered—and in many cases the majority—choose not to participate at elections, be they for the UK Parliament, local government, or the European Parliament. In a modern democracy, it is unacceptable that millions of people who are eligible to vote are missing from electoral registers. We believe it should be made clearer in law that any person who is eligible to vote in a UK election should be on the electoral register. We also believe that it is desirable in a representative democracy for turnout at elections of all kinds to be higher—and ideally far higher—than has been the case in recent years.

1   Figures for electoral registration referred to throughout this report relate to Great Britain only. The electoral registration system for Northern Ireland operates separately to that for Great Britain. Back

2   Certain people are excluded from voting. These are: Members of the House of the Lords, convicted persons detained in pursuance of their sentences, and anyone found guilty within the previous five years of corrupt or illegal practices in connection with an election. Back

3   Local elections include those for local councillors, mayors, and members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. Back

4   The Government's website, Voting in the UK, details who is eligible to vote for the various UK elections, and the Electoral Commission's website, About my vote, gives details of how to register to vote. Back

5   Electoral statistics for UK - 2013, Office for National Statistics. For local government elections, the number of registered voters was 47,691,800. Back

6   The quality of the 2014 electoral registers in Great Britain, Electoral Commission, July 2014 Back

7   Q724 [Jenny Watson] Back

8   Written evidence from the Electoral Commission [VUK 40, VUK 156] Back

9   Annex 1 - Terms of reference Back

10   A note of the informal event at the University of Sheffield is printed at Annex 2. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 14 November 2014