It’s getting more expensive to hold elections – and we don’t know enough about how the money is spent

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Alistair Clark, Newcastle University

Amid all the sound and fury, photocalls and mishaps of the general election campaign, it is easy to forget that administering the vote is a vast logistical exercise.

More than 40,000 polling stations need to be found and set up, staff need to be recruited and paid to work on polling day, ballot papers need to be printed and distributed, electoral registers finalised, and election counts organised.

This all costs the UK government significant sums of public money. And in recent years, the cost of elections has been rising steadily. These sums represent the administrative and logistical cost of the vote, before any campaign spending by political parties is factored in.

My research has suggested that these increases in election costs have risen faster than inflation, hinting at greater administrative pressures.

Contests with higher turnout cost more to run. The 2016 EU referendum cost £142 million, while the general election a year later cost almost the same amount.

By 2019, the specific winter circumstances of that election on December 12 raised costs to around £153 million. This is mainly because the buildings used for polling operations cost more to heat and to light in midwinter.

The 2024 general election looks likely to come in with an even higher price tag, at around £161 million. This figure is based on the amount government has estimated for what each contituency’s returning officers will be able to claim back from it.

The rising costs are due to high inflation, as well as rises in printing, staffing and location expenses. On top of this, extensions of electoral law, such as recent changes to postal voting and overseas electors processes, are also pushing up costs.

From election to election, there can be also specific additional costs. The local, Scottish and Welsh elections in 2021 racked up significant extra expense because of mitigations that were needed for COVID-19, such as social distancing, protective screens and hand sanitiser.

This year, voter identification will be part of the additional costs of the election, with potentially increased staffing and facilities in polling stations to help with the new requirements.

The impact assessment for the introduction of voter ID estimated this would cost around £150 million over a decade.

General elections are huge logistical operations, and the public funding for them is complex. Returning officers are allowed a sum of money that they can claim back from central government. It’s called the maximum recoverable amount (MRA) but the government does not publish the formula it uses to calculate it. This means that there is a lack of transparency around the workings that are used to guarantee voters’ electoral rights.

It is based on the spending for the last equivalent election, with adjustments made for any changes that may affect delivery. Research has suggested that the bulk of the amount goes on providing infrastructure like polling stations, staff to work in them and the organisation of postal votes.

And local authorities with large minority populations seem to have attracted more administrative funding in previous elections. The evidence suggests that regions that attract higher levels of public spending in general also attract higher average levels of spending on election administration.

In 2024, the legislation suggests that the lowest mainland MRA will be the £166,341 allocated to Hartlepool. By contrast, Hackney South and Shoreditch will be allocated £412,716.

Is it worth it?

The amounts may seem a lot to the ordinary voter. However, evidence suggests that higher amounts of election administration funding do lead to better quality in the delivery of elections.

This can be seen as an investment in democracy and in voters’ voices being accurately recorded by a service that has traditionally been underfunded and reliant on small teams.

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Another way of looking at it is to consider how much this costs per person registered to vote. Based on a British electorate (excluding Northern Ireland) of around 45.2 million, the 2024 election will cost about £3.57 per voter.

These rising costs bring other difficulties, however. Returning officers have to claim their election costs back from the UK government. Often they may not be reimbursed for up to two years, which will add pressure to the severe squeeze on local government finances.

In addition, the UK government has not followed through on a promise made in the mid-2010s to publish data on election administration funding. The last publication focused on the 2016 Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

As such, researchers and democracy campaigners are left puzzling through official documents to piece together information.

Election funding needs urgent reform and more transparency so that the public knows how much of its money is being spent, and where. This would be an important investment in improving the quality of elections.

Voters’ trust in the electoral process in Britain is fragile and major difficulties on election day could easily undermine that further. Spending adequately on electoral administration is an investment in building and maintaining that trust.

Increased transparency around election funding is a vital part of the picture. The new government needs to take note and provide a clear picture around this vital service which, ultimately, guarantees electors’ democratic rights.

Alistair Clark, Professor of Political Science, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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