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Department criticised over mayoral publicity

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The Department for Communities & Local Government’s last-minute intervention into rules surrounding official publicity of the mayoral referendums may have contributed to low levels of voter engagement, a report has said.

The Electoral Commission’s report on the running of this year’s local elections and referendums on 3 May criticised the department’s decision to only provide funding to areas that complied with guidance on the design of information leaflets. The commission claimed the department’s confirmation of the decision just before the pre-election ‘purdah’ period left councils with little time to finalise the contents of their booklets.

With the commission’s public opinion research finding that more than a third (35%) of people living in the areas with mayoral referendums claiming not to know very much about the referendums and a further 31% knowing nothing at all, the report claimed “better-planned public awareness activity could at least have raised levels of awareness” of the referendums.

“The advice from DCLG to local authorities that they would provide funding for voter information booklets about mayoral referendums, and the formation of a communications network of local authorities holding referendums, came too late to allow a considered, coordinated strategy to be implemented,” the report found. “A better and earlier understanding between the commission, the government and counting officers about who was responsible for funding and delivering public awareness for the referendum would have helped avoid the risk – which very nearly materialised – of voters not receiving even basic information about how to participate.”

In future, the commission should be given responsibility for providing guidance on publicity and checking that material meets that guidance.

Following concerns in February that local public awareness campaigns for the referendums would not provide voters with sufficient information, DCLG offered to provide funding to local counting officers to produce and distribute guidance. With Manchester and Nottingham having already produced examples of such guidance, the department took the decision to only fund the printing and distribution costs of leaflets that matched the style of those two authorities.

This advice was only provided “very close to the start of the pre-election period on 27 March… meaning the content of the booklets had to be finalised very quickly”, the report found.

It also warned that declining levels of turnout were “a wake-up call ahead of police and crime commissioner elections in November”.

A DCLG spokesman said: “We accepted the advice the Electoral Commission gave in February that awareness material is best delivered locally through returning and counting officers. The relevant authorities worked together to prepare awareness leaflets which they distributed close to the start of the pre election restricted period so that voters had the information as near to the poll as possible to maintain topicality but sufficiently in advance to enable them to discuss the issues.”

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