Guide to election communications 2022

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Why it matters

Introduction

Every election is different. Each race represents aspiration and choice, but this year perhaps more than ever we need to celebrate democracy and local choice. While it seems the worst of Covid-19 is behind us and restrictions have been lifted, it’s still around. Covid-19 will impacting preparation and campaigning now and will still have an impact on voters and election staff on 5 May. The impact of eroding trust in elections in the US may fray the edges here, too. While the war in Ukraine should demonstrate the vital importance of local government and democracy, it also highlights the vulnerability of our information systems and fragility of civil discourse.

This communications guide focuses on some easy steps that councils can take during the election period and some ideas to include for future elections.

Why it election communication matters so much

Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

In local government, we want all of our residents to have a voice. On a routine basis most of them also have a vote. It is our job to help them make the most of it. Sometimes it seems like citizens take this vote for granted. The average turnout for local elections is around a third of the electorate (when there are no coinciding general or European elections), meaning that two thirds of voters aren’t making it to the polls on election day. Some wards in the country have turnout as low as 20 per cent.

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 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 many voters are going to the polls in England and there are all out local elections in Scotland and in Wales. 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 votes mattered in the final outcome.

Election comms at a glance

As easy as 1, 2, 3

1. Know what you can show

Each year we get occasional feedback from people who say that we’re encouraging bad election practice by asking for pictures. We’re not. Pictures inside polling places while voting is going on are forbidden. But we love pictures of councils getting ready for the big day – polling stations being staged for example. Pictures of the count are great! The BBC shows tons of video of counts and we all can, too. Counts typically have had plenty of observers as well. The privacy of the ballot is sacrosanct, but elections are meant to be open. Be confident about that! This year, more than ever, people may feel a sense of disconnection from the electoral process, pictures and explanations will help people be able to see how open and safe elections are.

2. Be right on it with results on the web

It’s both fun and important to engage people on social media about voting and the count. But the most important thing is to have clear communications on your website. It might seem an obvious point, but it’s really important to show the overall result, including any change of control, in an easy to find place online, ideally linked from the front page of your council’s website. Results should be listed in tables, showing complete tallies of all races and clear indications of who has won. Some councils go further with graphical representations of political results and ward maps of the local authority area.

Over a number of years of looking at election results, we can say that many councils do well with this and some councils are great with maps and other clear visual displays of results. But in some councils we have had to literally go into 30 or so PDFs of results to find out who had won in each ward and then tot up what that meant for control. If we found it tricky, then imagine how hard it must have been for residents. Before any results come in, provide clear information for each election including what seats are up for grabs. When results are in, outcomes and final results for the whole council should be on an easy-to-find web page, which should be set up and ready to go well before election day. In the run-up to elections and in the days after, all election information, including statements of persons nominated and results should be findable from the ‘Council and Democracy’ landing page or equivalent if not from the main council home page itself. If we want people to believe that these elections are vital for our local democracy, then we need to communicate about them like they are.

3. Reach out, link in!

It’s fantastic to see great use of social media like Twitter and Facebook to cover and promote elections. Some councils are amazing at this and tweet regular updates about election issues (registration, voting information, etc) and updates on the day. Of course, it’s part of a wider, multi-channel strategy. When you’re thinking about election comms, plan how you will ensure social media will be an integral, natural part of how you communicate with journalists and the electorate. Have a plan of who will be covering the elections social media. And don’t just tweet ward results on their own, make sure each social media mention links back to your solid online presentation of election outcomes.

Pre-elections comms

Councils have responsibility for maintaining the electoral register and informing people about the upcoming elections. Of course, communications have to be impartial and through precedent and statute, we have developed communication styles to help councils and councillors carry on the business of local administration while not giving undue benefit to incumbents.

Many councils do an excellent job communicating key registration and election dates. However, the structure of the websites and election data can make it difficult for citizens to find information about who is running for election and re-election but a few simple actions can make it much easier.

Once again, Democracy Club is working with a group of volunteers to turn the Statements of Persons Nominated (SOPN) which councils are required to publish online into open data that can be used to drive websites like Who Can I Vote For which allow people to easily search for candidates by postcode and encourages crowdsourcing of social media profiles and other campaign materials so the electorate can be better informed. In the 2017 local elections there were over 300,000 uses of the data and they now get around 25,000 visits each month regardless of whether there is a major election coming up.

They also run Where Do I Vote which helps people locate their correct polling stations, which will be especially important that given last year that many usual venues were be unavailable (some are being used as vaccination centres) or unsuitable. In 2019, they processed over six million postcode searches across the local, European and general elections. Some councils are even using the polling location service on their own websites to help local people find the right place to vote with a simple postcode search. Councils running elections can help ensure that the information is correct by sharing polling station locations with Democracy Club when it is requested and by ensuring that any changes to the candidate list (i.e. withdrawals) are clearly highlighted or shared directly with Democracy Club.

Restricted comms

Photo by Sébastien Barbieri on Unsplash

Local government communications during elections are covered by both statute and convention. Purdah isn’t the technical term, but rather pre-election publicity or communications during heightened sensitivity and even the term purdah has become more sensitive, but it is a well-recognised term with its own contextual and cultural significance. The primary purpose of rules covering communication during the pre-election period is to prevent undue benefit accruing to incumbent candidates – basically free advertising – and to protect local government officers from political pressure. Under the 1986 Local Government Act, nothing can be published at any time which “in whole or in part appears designed to affect public support for a political party”.

Communications are governed by the government issued publicity code, which covers “any communication in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or a section of the public”.

It applies to:

  • Paid advertising
  • Leaflet campaigns
  • Publication of free newspapers and news sheets
  • Maintenance of websites – including hosting materials by third parties
  • And use of social media.

Local authorities can publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at election time: essentially straightforward provision of public information about the election. Councils can still use publicity to influence public behaviour in relations to matters of health, crime prevention, race relations, equality, diversity and community issues. The publicity code does allow a local authority to “correct erroneous material” which has been published by others. This is despite the fact that the material being corrected may have been published with the intention of influencing the public’s opinions about the policies of the authority. “Such publicity should seek to explain the facts in an objective manner.” Councils should also consider how to deal with any harassing disinformation and should think about making a factual statement or correction.

For more information about pre-election publicity see our LGIU Members’ only briefing Elections issues for English local authorities 2022 and for more information about online harassment and dealing with false statements and intimidation see our LGIU Members’ only briefing on Standards in Public Life: Intimidation in elections and inquiry into local government standards.

We also covered trust and transparency as a theme in our 2022 elections support.

Purdah and social media

Social media can offer a great way for citizens to engage with candidates and politicians, but it offers specific challenges during the pre-election period. The same communications principles apply online but there are particular points to consider.

  1. It’s worth explaining and linking to an explanation that council channels are governed by pre-election communications rules and provide a link.
  2. Don’t publish, share, retweet or otherwise re-publish content from political parties, politicians or political opinion.
  3. Don’t add content on matters which are politically controversial.

If you run channels which allow people to comment (e.g. Facebook pages or groups) you must monitor content and remove any overtly political comments or statements endorsing a particular candidate or party. If you do not have the capacity to moderate comments sufficiently turn off comments and explain why.

There are a couple of exceptions. Statements from the Mayor are exempt and can be published and shared as long as they aren’t overtly political. And councils may wish to issue statements that counter false or harassing statements online. As a society we are reckoning with more misinformation, but as yet there is no consensus on how to tackle it.

While there is some evidence that correcting disinformation can perversely help it spread, there is also a moral duty for authorities to provide a platform for the truth. If you have examples in your council of tackling misinformation, please share with us at [email protected] as we know many councils are grappling with this issue.

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Polling day and the count

Election day and the count itself, whether it is an overnight or delayed count should be seen as an opportunity to share the excitement about local democracy. Many councils have done excellent work in letting citizens see the hard work and the mechanics of a transparent democracy by sharing stories online. Kirklees Council, in particular, has done a lot of work using social media to talk about the electoral process through their Election Tales website.

During election day itself much care should be taken to avoid violating anyone’s voting privacy so photos in the polling place or even pictures of people entering polling places should be avoided. Depending on your age and outlook, you may think selfies are de rigueur for any life event, but they’re absolutely forbidden inside polling places. However, that doesn’t mean that councils can’t help build the excitement of the election through social media on Twitter and Facebook. Counts, on the other hand, are completely open and filming and photos are allowed. Anyone who has ever been to a count can tell you they are exciting and the nervousness of candidates awaiting victory or defeat is palpable. Social media posts can help those who can’t be there share in the anticipation – and while Covid restrictions have been lifted for now, there may still be some caution so fewer people may be able to be there in person, it becomes even more important.

Some councils are already planning ways to help count observers view disputed ballots from a distance with the aid of cameras and it wouldn’t take much extra work to share some of these images with the public to support confidence in the proceedings. One positive side effect of the pandemic is that people are now more used to watching video feeds of events and have an expectation that it’s possible and even desirable to watch official proceedings. Teams can capitalise on this by sharing count and update information to the public. The LGIU has been covering local elections on the night for many years and in the past several, almost all councils have been sharing results on Twitter as they’re announced. However, many councils fail to share regular links back to results pages meaning that citizens may struggle to see results as a whole or what the results in full mean for control of the council.

Sharing results

For perhaps the most important data in our democracy, clear, reliable elections results data can be surprisingly hard to find. Our research has shown that over half of English councils don’t present clear information before the election and only a quarter make it easy to see which political party is in control. Presentation of results data can be even worse after an election, even where there has been a change in control. If it’s hard for us seasoned election watchers to find this information, it has to be even harder for citizens to see what their vote has delivered or how close some contests are, giving them a sense of how powerful their vote can be (or at least some regret that they didn’t bother.)

When winners have been declared most councils now do really well with announcing ward by ward results on social media. But councils are still struggling to present data in a way that supports easy re-use. Although councils do publish results, they are often published in PDFs, a document format which means they aren’t easily searchable, sortable or reusable and it’s often difficult to find the data that is there on council websites.

Why does this matter? Partly it’s a question of principle and basic democratic hygiene. If any data should be open, usable and completely transparent, surely it’s democratic data. We have made great strides with democratic data, first posting it on paper in a public place, now requiring it online, the next step is simply publishing it in machine-readable and human-readable formats that support better analysis and transparency.

More importantly, this data is locked in a format which means that it’s too hard to provide quick analysis of election results across the country. It means that it’s difficult to provide retrospective analysis of how people are voting. Anecdotally, granular data and analysis of EU referendum voting patterns revealed significant geographic disparity in opinion even within local authority boundaries. Knowing this helped policy makers and community leaders address community concerns and build cohesion. Ward-level results can also show people just how close and contestable local elections can be.

If we wish to encourage greater participation in elections or encourage a wider diversity of candidates across age, gender, class and ethnicity we need to show just how possible it is to win. Councils already publish results in PDF, they should also publish ward level results in an open format (such as CSV files). Election Management Systems (EMS), with very little change, could publish results in this format which would make it easier for political enthusiasts to share their analysis

More help and info

Our elections support for 2022 includes a wide variety of information and events to help you stay up to date. It includes:

Trust

Running Covid safe elections

Transparency

Personal safety

…and more.

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