Blink and you’ll miss the coverage, but local elections are happening on Thursday 3 May in England.
A lot has changed since these seats were last contested, in 2014. We had the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government, Ed Miliband as Labour leader, and the EU referendum was years away.
Councils matter – they control everything from your bins to social care, from parks and libraries to street lights and parking. They set your council tax rate and decide what it’s spent on – and how. So if you have a vote, use it.
But, first things first: what you need to know.
1. 150 councils have seats up for grabs
That includes all 32 London boroughs, and some big cities. As BuzzFeed’s Emily Ashton notes, “of the 34 metropolitan boroughs, four have elections for all their seats – Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The remaining 30 have a third of their seats up for grabs.”
2. You may need to register to vote
You have until midnight on 17 April to register to vote, or you can apply for a postal vote by 5pm on 18 April.
If you’re already registered at the correct address, don’t worry. But if you’re not on the register or have moved house recently, you’ll need to sign up now. It takes five minutes.
Unfortunately, you can’t find out if you’re already registered online, as the registers are done at a local council level.
That means unlike most modern democracies, there’s no national register – making it hard to get decent election statistics (including on turnout).
A national register would allow people to vote at whichever polling station they wanted, while making it easier to spot potential fraud.
In the long run, we need to move to more automatic methods of registration – an ‘opt out’ system rather than the current ‘opt in’ version. Voting is both a right and, for many, a democratic duty – why should you have to sign up for it?
3. Who can vote?
“To vote in a local council election a person must be registered to vote, 18 years or over on polling day in England and Wales or 16 years or over on polling day in Scotland, and also: a British citizen, a qualifying Commonwealth citizen, or a citizen of the European Union resident in the UK.”
(From Your Vote Matters)
Note – this may be the last election European citizens can vote, as it’s not yet clear what will happen after Brexit on this front.
4. Sheffield is electing its first mayor
In 2014 the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority was established – a newly-devolved body which will have major influence over transport and development policy. It will soon have a mayor, with the first election next month. Find out more here.
“If you are registered to vote in local elections for any of the district councils of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham or Sheffield, you will be eligible to vote in this election.”
There are also borough mayors being elected in parts of London – Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets.
5. Mandatory voter ID is being trialled
Five areas are forcing voters to prove their identity next month, as part of a government trial. Those are Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking.
The plans are to test whether voter ID should be rolled out across all polling stations in future.
But there are huge risks to this. In the 2011 Census, 9.5 million people stated they did not hold a passport, 9 million do not have a driving licence and in 2013/14 1.7 million lack even a bank account.
That makes mandatory voter ID – with no free provision – a barrier to many people exercising their right to vote.
The government have not credibly responded to these concerns – despite an unprecedented coalition of charities and civil society groups demanding a rethink on the reckless plans.
6. It’s difficult to find out who your candidates are…
There is no official website showing who is standing in your local elections – instead, you have to rely on local council websites. They are often, it has to be said, extremely basic or ill-designed.
Even the official Electoral Commission election site cannot tell you who your candidates are.
Several civil society groups have however done a great job at collating the information that’s out there – find out who your candidates are at whocanivotefor.co.uk
In the meantime, we think it’s high time for a properly-funded national election resource. with candidate details and statements.
7. All these council elections will use the broken ‘First Past the Post’ system
Unlike elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland (which use the proportional Single Transferable Vote electoral system), elections in England and Wales use the Westminster system of First Past the Post – where only votes cast for the first-placed candidate in each seat result in any representation.
That means all other votes go to waste, resulting in huge skews and injustices on a national level – not to mention ‘tactical voting’ and the scandal of safe-seats.
Whatever the case, council decisions make a big difference to people’s lives.
It’s important to get out there and have your say, so if you’re in an election area, don’t miss your chance.
Sign our petition for local voting reform