Essential guide to Local Election Communications 2023
This guide is part of the LGIU’s one-stop-shop of local elections resources, which include information, support, analysis and commentary.
Polling day for local government is the single most important day of the calendar. It allows people to have a say and change the direction of the body that can deliver more than 1,000 services for people.
You have local government to thank if you travel by road, walk on a footpath, go to school, swim, go to a park, seek help if you are young or old and scores of other things. Elections are a chance to have a say.
This guide is focussed on some easy steps to make election communications better so that local people know where to vote, who they can vote for and how much their vote mattered in the final outcome. The biggest upheaval in decades is about to land and it is vital that advance planning is made to ensure it passes off as successfully as possible. The debate around Voter ID has been long and vocal but the reality is that it is here and needs to be communicated.
In the past, all an elector needed to do was go along to the right Polling Station to vote. Voter ID changes that. They will now need to take a government approved form of ID. This comes into force for local elections in England in May 2023. Northern Ireland already has Voter ID. You won’t need Voter ID in Scotland and Wales for local elections but everyone in the UK will for General Elections from October 2023. Where Voter ID is being introduced, there is a real risk that people will be caught out and turned away from polling stations. Good planning and good communications more than ever before are needed to make local elections run as smoothly as they can get. The saying ‘fail to plan, plan to fail’ is absolutely relevant.
There are several operational suggestions for you in this guide. We look at issuing communications staff, elections staff and candidates a one pager setting out all that everyone needs to know about Voter ID. We look at embedding a member of the communications team in the elections office during polling day and we look at drawing-up lines to take for social media. We run through how to provide for the media on election night as well as communicating the results as a council.
If you are from a council who are not running an election with Voter ID don’t look the other way. Come future General Elections everyone in the UK will need ID.
This guide aims to help you act before the pre-election period, before polling day, during polling day and at the count.
Monday March 27 is the latest day when the pre-election period can start for the local elections. The exact date will be fixed locally by the Returning Officer.
Monday April 17 at 11.59pm is the deadline for a Proxy Vote where someone else can vote for you. This can be done here.
Monday April 17 at 11.59pm is the deadline to make an application for a Postal Vote. This can be done here.
Tuesday 25 April at 5pm is the deadline to make an application for a Voter Authority Certificate. This is an alternative form of ID recognised by the Government and will be administered by council elections teams for local elections in England. This can be done here.Thursday May 4 7am to 10pm Polling Stations will be open
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Why election communications matter
Part of the reason that people may not be making the effort to vote in local elections is that they may not know who the candidates are or what they stand for. Even though many candidates campaign hard both online and on the doorstep and local activists wear out shoe leather delivering leaflets, it’s not always easy to really know who to vote for or even who is running. Once the results are in, it can be almost as hard to find out who has won and nearly impossible to find out just how close elections may have been. Even though councils are required to publish results, they’re not always in an accessible format.
Finally, there’s the sense that local democracy is somehow a lesser democracy, however we know that local government runs most of the services that touch our daily lives and should be the easiest way to access the process and the outcomes of our democracy. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that some wards across the country appear so disengaged, based on voter turnout. It’s important to remember that many people, including those who don’t vote, have regular interactions with local government – far more so than with central government. This year will be crucial as we have two sets of elections where residents will choose the local leaders who will shape and guide the post-pandemic recovery. And there will be more to communicate. This is the most complicated set of elections, with many voters getting multiple ballots for Police and Crime Commissioner, more than one tier of local government or a neighbourhood plan referendum.
Effective communications can build enthusiasm and understanding of local democracy. This guide is focussed on some easy steps to make election communications better so that local people know where to vote, who they can vote for and how much their vote mattered in the final outcome.
The council, pre-election period and social media
Pre-election period rules govern social media, too. This covers all council affiliated channels along with those with a partnership agreement with the council. So, if a partner is maintaining street lamps on your behalf, they’re covered too.
Each social media account should post and pin a link to the LGA’s social media in the pre-election period guidance. This should be replicated and explained on the council’s website. This will explain that during this period channels won’t share certain material and comments that are politically controversial will be deleted. It is wise for all council channels, not just corporate channels, to post a link to this and add a link from their social media bio for the duration of the pre-election period.
It’s important to make sure that everyone with admin access to a council or partnership social media account sees the advice and acts on it. This is why it’s important to maintain a register of social media access with a name and email address added so they can be contacted.
A word about the pre-election period
Contrary to popular myth, what local government produces as a facebook update, poster, press release or tweet are tightly governed and never more so in the weeks before an election.
What a council issues is governed by the Recommended Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity. There are separate versions for England and for Wales but they are broadly the same. The code’s founding principles are that material should be lawful, cost effective, objective, even-handed, appropriate, have regard to equality and diversity and to be issued with care during heightened sensitivity.
In the run-up to an election, there is a period when councils need to be especially careful. This runs from when the election is formally called and includes when the polling stations are open. Traditionally, this has been known as ‘purdah’ but the trend has moved to call it the ‘pre-election period’ instead.
This period does not mean that a council’s communications should cease entirely. What it does mean is that councils should follow a series of recommendations. They should not issue publicity which influences voters or covers controversial issues. They should also not issue material on individuals or parties standing for election. They shouldn’t issue materials that include them, such as pictures of candidates or feature them in media releases. In the pre-election period, a council also cannot help with visits from national figures. Councils also need to reflect on campaigns they may be running. Non-controversial campaigns such as recycling may well continue but others may not. Councils also need to not launch new consultations or publish results of such proposals at this time.
However, in the pre-election period, a council can publish factual information and can challenge extreme views in some cases. The best advice is to check on a case-by-case basis with the returning officer.
As we’ll see, the pre-election covers the corporate channels but also other council channels whether they be the library facebook page, a contractor’s Twitter or the date of a council consultation.
Tell people about...
…the balance of power
If we want local people to know where to vote, who they can vote for and how much their vote matters the first thing to do is tell them the balance of power and who is in charge.
All too often councils don’t bother to do this on their democracy pages. We often see a breakdown of how many elected members each party has but not a note to explain who is in overall charge. A resident should not have to search a news site for such fundamentally basic information. An explanation of the current status quo is essential if we want local people to see that their vote can make a difference. On the council website, tell people if there is a majority administration for a political party or that there is a minority administration.
Build on the principle that you are telling people who is in charge and why their vote matters. With that in mind, it would be good practice to spell out what the polls were in each ward the last time they were contested by that elected member. This takes into account the personal vote of the elected member. That’s a really important part of local democracy.
Communicating the changes of voter ID
The issue of voter ID is a mixed and controversial topic.
In England, voters must bring government-approved ID with them to the polling station for council elections in May 2023. In Wales and Scotland voters won’t have to bring ID for council elections. Northern Ireland already has the voter ID system. In General Elections from October and in by-elections, everyone across the UK looking to vote will have to bring ID with them to the polling station.
No voter ID is needed for postal votes.
Explaining that mixed picture to voters will be a difficult job. Government and Electoral Commission campaigns are taking place. It’s important to understand that this step has been politically controversial given the low level of voter fraud. There have been three convictions between 2016 and 2020. However, councils must communicate the changes and what they mean in a non-partisan way ahead of the local elections exactly and make clear what forms of ID voters can bring. Local government communications and elections staff will take the brunt of the changes.
People who struggle with finding a valid piece of ID have two main choices, effectively. They can apply for a postal vote where ID isn’t needed or they can apply for a Voter Authority Certificate. This document is provided through the council but the deadline for both routes is quite early – April 17 and April 25.
It is important for elections as well as all communications staff individually to be clear on what the changes are. Communications people need to know this because of the greater potential for misinformation, disinformation, online questions and abuse aimed at council channels in the run-up to Polling Day as well as the day itself.
It would be strongly recommended that elections and communications teams share the same one page voter ID advice sheet. It would be prudent to also share this basic information with political parties and candidates. This makes sure everyone is fully briefed with the same information.
A summary of the Voter ID changes
- Voter ID is being introduced in England for local elections in May 2023.
- Scotland and Wales are not introducing voter ID for local elections.
- All the UK must adopt voter ID for general elections and Parliamentary by-elections from October 2023.
- People looking to vote need to be on the Electoral Register.
- Monday March 27 is the latest day when the pre-election period can start for the local elections. The exact date will be fixed locally by the Returning Officer.
- Monday April 17 at 11.59pm is the deadline to be added to the Electoral Register. This needs to be done to order a Proxy Vote, Postal Vote, Anonymous Vote or to vote in person.
- Monday April 17 at 11.59pm is the deadline for a Proxy Vote where someone else can vote for you. This can be done here.
- Monday April 17 at 11.59pm is the deadline to make an application for a Postal Vote. This can be done here.
- Tuesday 25 April at 5pm is the deadline to make an application for a Voter Authority Certificate. This is an alternative form of ID recognised by Government and will be administered by council elections teams for local elections in England. This can be done here.
- Thursday May 4 7am to 10pm Polling Stations will be open.
- A UK, Commonwealth or EEA passport.
- A UK (DVLA or DVA Northern Ireland), Channel Islands, Isle of Man or EEA driving licence.
- A biometric immigration document issued in accordance with regulations under the UK Borders Act 2007.
- A pass card issued by the National Proof of Age Standards scheme
- An MOD defence identity card.
- A concessionary photo travel pass from Oyster 60+, a Freedom Pass, or a concessionary travel pass from a scheme funded by the UK, Scottish or Welsh governments. Concessionary fares scheme cards from Northern Ireland.
- A Blue Badge scheme card issued in Great Britain or Northern Ireland.
- A national identity card issued by an EEA state.
ID that will not be accepted
- Railcards, Oyster cards and Student travel cards.
If people who are on the Electoral Register don’t have government-issued ID they can apply for a Voter Authority Certificate.
- They can do this via the Government portal with a digital photograph and their National Insurance number.
- They can also apply by post by printing out the application form and posting it to the council elections office.
- People can apply for an Anonymous Electors Document which they need to take to the polling station.
Before the pre-election period
Build a lines to take sheet
In addition, communications people may want to build a ‘lines to take sheet’ in response to expected questions. This will be helpful for staff who monitor social media channels. Do this with input from elections staff. Elections people themselves recommend doing this early rather than waiting until the last minute when they will be run ragged. The start of the pre-election period seems like a good time to have this done. April 17 is the deadline for getting a postal vote and 25 April is the deadline for applying for a Voter Authority Certificate. There’s likely to be a spike in questions and online activity around this date.
The sort of questions to anticipate may be:
- Why are these changes taking place?
- What ID is acceptable?
- What ID isn’t acceptable?
- What do I do if I don’t have a passport?
- Is my student bus pass good enough?
- What have the council done to tell us about these changes?
- It’s polling day, how many people have been turned away?
Be mindful that there may be anger on the day as people are turned away.
Remember in framing the responses on social media you need to be even-handed and apolitical. The rules of the pre-election period are there along with your regular responsibilities under the Recommended Code of Practice on Local Authority Publicity.
As ever, if you are talking to people on social media then do so with a human voice. Don’t cut and paste stock lines. That comes over as insincere and impersonal and you’ll make the situation worse. Use the lines to take as a starting point for the information to provide.
Don’t be tempted to not acknowledge or reply to questions as a blanket response. We’ll look at how and when to respond in this guide. Social media is a conversation and by not taking part you are leaving the conversation about you to others.
Before polling day
Planning media access
Journalists play an important role in the democratic process of elections. There is no requirement in law to allow journalists into the room where votes are being counted. This is entirely down to the discretion of the Returning Officer who has the responsibility for security. However, it is best practice to allow the media to attend and ask them to apply to the Returning Officer for a media pass to attend well in advance.
The Electoral Commission, with leading UK broadcasters such as Sky and the BBC, has drawn-up the Tips on Managing the Media at the Count download to help the process. The tips suggest appointing a single media manager for broadcasters and print journalists. This will manage the process better. That media manager may have some valuable insight at the planning stage not least on how the room layout may be framed and where media may be located.
You may want to contact the media well in advance to spell out what journalists need to do to attend. Some titles have been hollowed out and won’t have the newsroom experience of attending a count before. It’s also likely that PA – the Press Association – will send along a representative. They may ask a local reporter to be a ‘stringer’ for them. The PA elections data is used by a variety of broadcasters and news outlets across the UK.
It’s useful to draw-up a Media Pack in advance. This can be sent out in advance but also prepare hard copies. This should include the balance of power and who currently runs the council as well as a list of candidates. It is useful to have data on the last election as well as the last time those seeking re-election stood.
Media accreditation and any deadlines for media to apply for them needs to be worked out well in advance. Broadcasters in particular may ask for as much flexibility as possible as decisions are not always taken on which staff to send until the day. In addition, broadcasters may need advance access to set up their equipment. They are going to need their cameras to be within sight of any stage or area where results are announced.
Communicate what information will be released on the night and in what format. Tell broadcasters if there is a stage with the results read out, for example.
The question of how many voters were turned away for not having voter ID and how the new process has gone is likely to be important for journalists covering elections in England. Aside from the results, it is the next basic question that journalists will be pressed by their news editors to provide an answer to. Councils where voter ID is being introduced are being asked to collect this data but it may not be in the council’s plans to release it on the night. If that’s the case, the supplementary question to expect is when that data will be made available. There will be pressure on the night for the Returning Officer to give an objective assessment on how the introduction of the new measures went. It’s important to think ahead on how to tackle this.
If your council isn’t running an election go and find one that is
Lastly, not every council is staging elections in 2023. Check to see if this is you. If you are not staging an election it’s tempting to sit back, kick off your shoes and forget about it all. Don’t do that. No matter how tempting. Elections staff privately think it’s going to take two or three elections to properly embed the changes. One idea would be for communications and elections people to make contact with a neighbouring council who are navigating these changes so they can maybe sit in on key planning meetings. It would definitely be worth going along to the count as an extra pair of hands. They’ll value your help and you’ll learn some really useful first hand lessons you can take back to your authority.
On the day
Combating rumour, misunderstandings, misinformation and disinformation
So far, we’ve looked at what to do ahead of polling day. There’s plenty to do but on the day things get even busier.
Councils really need to take their staffing rota plans off the shelf and revise them. One key task as polls open is to be ready and prepared to combat a wave of rumour, confusion, disinformation and misinformation.
In the UK, there’s been plenty of surprising theories around elections in recent years. One suggestion was that pencils used in polling booths were part of an elaborate plot to steal the election. It wasn’t and they aren’t. But council comms teams were forced to challenge rumour to stop them getting even bigger. So, as the contentious voter ID issue comes to the fore expect to be busy. To be fair to residents, there’s likely to be a lot of confusion with the changes. That needs to be addressed through real time communications. We’ve looked in this guide about drawing-up up a one pager with all the relevant information on voter ID as well as lines to take. Whoever is monitoring social media channels needs to have this document and be fully up to speed.
More broadly, there is a serious risk not just of reputational damage to the council but also to trust in the entire electoral process. Make no mistake, voter ID may be the brainchild of the UK Government, but it will be councils will be at the sharp end of delivery. Planning ahead will be critical.
It would be wise for communications teams to increase their staffing levels on polling day. It is strongly recommended to have a member of the communications embedded with the elections team on the day. This allows them to respond to issues in real time as they are phoned through from polling stations. It would also be wise for this member of staff to monitor and search through social media looking for misinformation in order to challenge it with the right facts. Some rumours are persistent and are likely to crop back up. Research on online misinformation shows that it is not a once and done process. Councils need to correct it wherever it crops up. Facebook and Twitter are likely to be places for extra attention.
One tip may be to adopt the strategy of the Royal British Legion in the run-up to Poppy Day. They create shareable content well in advance to myth bust.
The public, elections and social media
Mobile phones are in the pockets, hands and bags of almost everyone in the UK. Just two per cent of UK households don’t have a phone. Electoral Commission guidance is not to allow selfies inside the polling station. Guidance also says that taking a photograph of your ballot paper in a polling station is also not allowed. However, taking a photo of a postal vote and sharing is allowed so long as it’s yours and you’ve not been pressured into it.
There has been a trend in recent years of taking photographs of dogs at polling stations. This is harmless fun as long as it does not give the owner’s voting intentions.
Supporting communications staff
This is the tricky part. The Health and Safety Executive in their guidance on ‘Violence in the Workplace’ say that verbal abuse is the most common with actual violence rare. Polling station staff are at risk of abuse and will have their own processes. However, communications staff who are on duty are also vulnerable to abuse both online and in person at the count. Often a council will have social media house rules, which set out how accounts are run and standards for behaviour expected from users. One common rule is not to tolerate abuse, racism, sexism or homophobia. Verbal abuse in person or online should not be tolerated. If the abuse is online, take a screenshot, warn the culprit about their behaviour and then if they persist block them. They are not being stopped from voting or even from engaging with the council. They can still do that through alternative means.
At the count
Access for journalists
Often a sports centre or hall is used for the count where ballot boxes are emptied and counted under strict supervision. This is a busy, often high pressure and regulated environment where political ambitions are made and dashed. At the best of times, close results can raise tempers. In 2023 with the introduction of voter ID, this is likely to be an extra source of tension.
We’ve looked at appointing a media manager to act as liaison with journalists. This will come into its own on the night. We’ve also looked at press packs to give journalists the basic data. It’s useful for the media manager to know what the key candidates look like so they can point them out. It’s usually the case that the media are directed to a dedicated area where there may be plug sockets for charging points, toilets, WiFi and light refreshments. They won’t be allowed on the floor of the count during the count itself. Photographs, video and filming should not to identify voting trends or individual votes. A quick note on GDPR – there is no requirement for the media to seek permission to take pictures. Even so, it may be a courtesy to let those involved in the count know in advance that this may take place.
The Electoral Commission advice on managing media at elections recommends making hard copies of results available for broadcasters and other reporters as the announcement takes place to reduce the risk of misreporting. One way that is common is to have a results noticeboard with each ward and space enough to pin the numbers when they are announced. Journalists will need to have access to this.
Journalists on the night will appreciate and expect as much prior warning for the announcement of key results. This allows them to brief producers. In addition to broadcasters, the Press Association news agency is likely to have a representative at the count whether that be an accredited reporter or a local reporter doubling up.
The count has traditionally been a useful time for communications teams to demonstrate the value of their worth. It’s a chance to put faces to names for candidates, elected councillors and the media. This has particular value in pointing out to journalists who the key candidates are.
There is now a greater demand for WiFi at the count for the media as well as candidates. The communications team would be well served by bringing along an additional source of WiFi such as a MiFi which can create an additional separate closed WiFi channel they and the media can use. Power banks and chargers for comms team members to plug into would also be advisable. In addition, it would make sense to test the WiFi signal and any back-up ahead of time.
Twenty years ago, ward results were published in full in few places. Results were available on a notice board outside the Town Hall and the day after on the website and in the local newspaper. Social media has changed this.
We’ve looked at enabling the media to report the election results as they happen. This is also the job of the council. The council is now expected to update its website and main social media channels in realtime. It would be advisable to map out the changing landscape by political party as the results come in. In many cases, there is no clear winner on the night and a period of negotiation between rival political parties takes place. It would be advisable to update the council website with guidance on which political party has overall control and also that there is no overall control. This is an important yet often overlooked piece of information that councils neglect to do. It tells people that their vote made a difference and their voice mattered.
Live broadcasts, such as Facebook Live, have been used by councils to communicate results. There are several drawbacks to this. On a delivery level, poor audio may ruin the experience for the audience. There is also the issue of political statements being made in victory speeches and other off-camera conversations and comments being captured. Broadcasters and printing news reporters may want to do this. It’s useful to establish this in the pre-election night planning period.
Local government is as good or bad as local people will allow it to be. Their voice at the ballot box is of vital importance. They need to know where to vote, how to vote, who they can vote for and how much their vote mattered in the final outcome.
There’s no doubt that voter ID is going to be a huge challenge to get right. Lessons can be learned from local elections in May 2023 in England that can be applied in other parts of the UK. Advance planning is going to be absolutely critical in all of this.