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Idea Exchange: How Swindon boosted voter turnout in ID pilot

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A concerted communications campaign helped ensure a potentially controversial scheme actually bolstered voter engagement


  • Project: Swindon Voter ID pilot communications campaign
  • Objectives: To maximise the number of people able to vote in the 2018 Swindon BC local elections because they presented a valid form of ID
  • Timescale: 13-week campaign
  • Cost to authority: Campaign fully funded by Cabinet Office
  • Number of staff working on project: Three communications officers with support from electoral services
  • Outcomes: Only 60 people were turned away due to lack of satisfactory ID, and 35 of those later returned with ID. Just 25 people, or 0.04% of all eligible voters who turned out to vote, did not vote due to lack of ID
  • Officer contact details: Phil Avery

Being asked to run a controversial national voter identification pilot scheme would be a huge undertaking for any local authority. To do so with only five months’ notice just added to the size of the task.

But we like a challenge here in Swindon. So when the Cabinet Office came calling with a last-minute request to run one of the Voter ID pilots, we were only too happy to help. Having run successful election pilots in the past, we were confident our excellent elections team would do a fine job. The biggest challenge was the reputational risk around the trial, and it meant our communications team went into overdrive.

The thrust of the trial meant that all voters in May’s local elections in Swindon were required to show a form of ID to be able to vote. Swindon went with the polling card as the key form of ID. Each featured a unique barcode that was scanned at the polling station before the voter received his or her ballot paper.

Timely and well-planned communications were required to inform all eligible voters of this change and so make sure everyone was able to vote as normal. Locally and nationally the pilot was opposed by political parties and all eyes were turned to the five pilot authorities to see how things would play out. Would voters be disenfranchised? Would people be effectively denied the right to vote?

One third of councillors were up for election in Swindon, with 134,000 people eligible to vote. The Cabinet Office co-ordinated all five national pilots, including communications, but each authority was left to write and deliver their own local communications plan based on the Government Communication Service’s OASIS (Objectives, Audience, Strategy, Implementation and Scoring/Evaluation) campaign planning framework.

The major issue we had was making sure our message got through to every registered voter, including the audiences identified in the diversity impact assessment.

It was therefore imperative we developed a robust campaign strategy that would cut through Swindon-wide to all voters. The closest we came to a catch-all message was the delivery of first a letter and then the poll card to all voters. But even then we knew people often throw away post before reading it and, even if they did open it, they may forget to bring their poll card to vote.

As a result, the campaign relied in large part on engagement with local community leaders and influencers. Over 500 groups were contacted and we successfully engaged with almost half, which cascaded information and campaign materials.

We engaged with these groups regularly throughout the campaign, asking them to share messages with increasing frequency in the run up to the elections. This was really important for communicating with people we had identified could be negatively impacted by the pilot.

Social media was a key channel, combining a six-week organic campaign and paid-for advertising leading up the elections. Themes included #votervirgins, popular culture memes, and a video subtitled in six languages. The highlight was our video of Slinky – a team member’s own sausage dog – with Voter ID logo wings. This reached nearly 10,000 people with over 3,800 views, a record for our social media accounts. Overall we had 1.49 million impressions across Facebook and Twitter by the end of the campaign, with many people commenting directly on the quality of the posts (which are still available on Facebook and Twitter #VoterIDSwindon).

The success of our social media campaign was to keep repeating a very simple, factual message in an interesting and engaging way over a 13-week period. Each week we changed the theme we used, trying to target a different demographic.

Local media also played a key role. Thanks to some good relationships with local reporters, regular briefings and media releases, we managed to get a steady stream of coverage leading up the election in our local daily paper and on our local TV and radio.

Given the borough-wide audience and campaign objectives, we took the view that adverts on back of local buses and on bus shelters in key locations would add value. They served as a highly visible way of reinforcing our key message to large numbers of residents, along with signage at our recycling centre which is visited daily by thousands of residents.

Another key audience was our 2,800 staff, many of whom live in Swindon. We ensured they were fully briefed, and encouraged them to spread the word with their own personal and professional networks.

On the day of the election, the new digital voting system we had in place for our pilot ensured we were able to watch in real time as the votes came in. Fortunately, there were very few reports of people with no identification being turned away from polling stations. In fact, only 25 voters out of 62,000 did not vote after being turned away for not having ID. This represents just 0.04% of all eligible voters who turned up to vote. This was the lowest number of all five pilot areas across the country.

Clearly this was a big positive and we also performed well against our other objectives. Turnout increased by 6%, only 110 people contacted our customer services with queries over the 13-week campaign, and polling through our customer services team showed an 80% awareness level the week before the elections.

It’s fair to say that we prepared for a crisis, leaving no stone unturned in being able to robustly demonstrate every registered voter had ample opportunity to know about the pilot and what they needed to do. Working closely with the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office Communications meant a valuable opportunity to peer review our approach, as did fortnightly calls with the other council pilots areas.

The pilot provided a highly visible way to internally demonstrate the value of well-planned, resourced and delivered communications campaigns. It not only protected but enhanced the council’s reputation in the face of local and national scrutiny. It’s also likely to be no coincidence that turnout increased as a result of the communications generating additional interest in the local elections.

Phil Avery, head of communications, Swindon BC

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