The Electoral Commission is an independent body established in 2001. Its mandate is limited by what is set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 and subsequent amendments.
The Electoral Commission is responsible for overseeing elections, regulating political finance and registering political parties in the UK. More broadly, its remit is to promote public confidence and participation in our democratic processes and to ensure their integrity.
The Electoral Commission is not an all-encompassing democracy watchdog. It has no responsibility for enforcing purdah, regulating or investigating campaign material, such as claims in leaflets or political ads off- and online. In fact, no body regulates the truthfulness of claims in political adverts. The only restriction is that you can’t ‘Knowingly make a false statement about the personal character of another candidate’, a rule enforced by the police.
The police are also responsible for dealing with allegations around postal voting and other types of electoral fraud.
The Electoral Commission ensures the integrity and transparency of party and election finance. Parties, campaigners and other groups are required to report their finances (donations, loans, campaign spending, and annual accounts) over a certain amount to the Electoral Commission, who then publishes this information online in a publicly available, searchable register.
The Commission has the power to investigate where parties or campaigners have broken the rules around political finance and may take enforcement action. For serious criminal offences, the Commission can pass investigations on to the police or other prosecuting authorities.
But, as we’ve argued, the Commission’s sanctioning and enforcement powers are not sufficiently strong – with fines and other deterrents being seen as merely the ‘cost of doing business’.
The Electoral Commission ensures elections are run well and that voters have the information they need. It does not run polling stations, count votes or announce results – all of these are done by individual Returning Officers in Great Britain and by the Chief Electoral Officer in Northern Ireland.
Before elections, the Commission runs information campaigns for the public (e.g. reminding people of voter registration and other deadlines), provides guidance and assistance to Returning Officers (e.g. on electoral registration and performance standards), and advises political parties and candidates.
During the election, the Commission makes sure that people have the information they need to vote, including by answering questions people may have (e.g. the location of polling stations), and visits polling stations to observe the running of the election.
After the election, the Commission produces a report on the administration of the election (including any recommendations for improvement) and publishes information on parties’ and campaigners’ donations and spending, and on electoral data (e.g. turnout and information on postal voting).
Unlike in other countries, the Electoral Commission does not announce the winner. Individual Returning Officers announce each individual MP’s election. It is up to private companies and volunteers to collect the results from each constituency so we know how many votes each party got nationally.
While the Commission doesn’t run elections, it does run national referendums held under the PPERA legislation or has other responsibilities, depending on the referendum law (e.g. in referendums held in Scotland or Wales). The Commission’s chair is the Chief Counting Officer for referendums under PPERA and is therefore responsible for conducting the poll and certifying and announcing the results.
In addition to providing guidance and resources, and publishing information on funding and spending as it does for elections, before a referendum takes place, the Commission ensures that the referendum question’s wording is easy for voters to understand. It is also responsible for designing the ballot paper and appointing a lead campaigner for each side of the referendum debate.
Like for elections, during a referendum, the Commission ensures that the poll is well run by checking whether Returning Officers are performing to its standards, and that people have the information they need; after the poll, it publishes reports on the running of the referendum, on donations and spending, and on electoral data.
In addition to the above, the Electoral Commission also conducts its own research and consultations, as part of its remit to guarantee the integrity of democratic processes. As part of this, the Commission has conducted research and made recommendations on:
- Modernising the electoral registration system, making it easier and more accessible to voters, including through exploring automated or automatic registration
- Simplifying and future-proofing electoral law, so that it is fit for the 21st century
- Improving the accessibility of elections
- Enhancing the transparency around funding and spending, particularly around digital campaigning. In this regard, the Electoral Commission has been advocating since 2003 the extension of the imprint disclosure (stating who has paid for and promoted election material) to online advertising. It is also calling on social media companies to set up online databases of political ads, so that voters can see who is targeting them
As part of our work on reforming electoral law and updating our analogue-age campaign regulations, the ERS has been calling for:
- The extension of the imprint requirement to online campaign material
- The creation of a single online database of political adverts
- Increasing the Electoral Commission’s enforcement and sanctioning powers so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing