Local elections: Where will turnout be a challenge?

Ballot boxes Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are areas of England where not even one in five people voted in previous council elections

Fewer than one in five eligible voters in some parts of England previously chose anyone to represent them in local elections, raising fears of a democratic deficit.

BBC News analysis of voting patterns in 2,500 council wards since 2012 shows wide disparities.

Most of the areas where the fewest people voted in recent elections are in the North.

The Electoral Reform Society said it was vital people turned out to vote.

Campaigners are concerned there will be a low turnout again on Thursday 5 May if voters continue to see local authority elections as "less important" than a General Election.

According to data from the commission covering the 2012, 2014 and 2015 council elections:

  • Liverpool's Central ward had the lowest in the country, with just 1,658 votes cast out of an electorate of 13,091 in local elections in 2012.
  • Turnout in Liverpool Central only improved significantly when polling day coincided with the General Election, when nearly half of voters returned a ballot.
  • Hull contained four of the 10 wards where the lowest number of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2012, 2014 and 2015 elections.

Tap here to find out which election is taking place in your area.

Voter apathy


wards saw fewer than 20% of the electorate vote in 2012

  • 368,594 were eligible to vote

  • 65,221 returned a ballot that year

  • 4 wards had under 1/5 turnout in 2014, alongside European elections

  • 43% was lowest turnout in 2015, when General Election took place too

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Get the data here.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: "These figures show that there is a serious democratic deficit in local elections in England.

"Local authorities are central to running so many services - from adult social care, to waste, schools and transport - and with many getting more powers, it's vital people turn out, hold them to account and have their say."

A spokeswoman for the Electoral Commission said: "Our research shows that recent home movers, young people, people from some black and minority ethnic communities, and people in rented accommodation are less likely to be registered to vote."

The commission ran a public awareness campaign encouraging people from these groups to go online and register, with more than 1.6 million applications made since 1 February.

Despite the North having some of the least engaged voters, it also contained those at the top end.

The ward with the best turnout overall was Old Laund Booth in Pendle, Lancashire, where 85% of registered voters used their ballot in 2015.

However, the ward has only one councillor and therefore elections only take place every four years.

Of those wards that held elections three years out of four, it was Bastwell in Blackburn that had the highest average turnout, 66%.

Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote, said the Bastwell turnout was encouraging and showed trends such as those seen in Liverpool Central could be reversed.

He said: "When we were in Liverpool there was real, entrenched cynicism among too many individuals. They believe that these civic institutions barely look like the people they are representing and they say it has nothing to do with them, which then makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy as they do not use their vote to change it.

"Bastwell shows things can be turned around and offers us hope. But it has to be bottom up, diverse-led change. Change cannot be from community leaders herding people blindly into the polling booths."

A Liverpool City Council spokesman said the Central ward had a "very large student population", which suggested "a lot of voter apathy among them for local elections".

It worked with the National Union of Students, visiting halls of residence and hired campaign group Operation Black Vote's bus to encourage people to register before the deadline on 18 April.

In the 2012 council elections the national average turnout was 31%. Two years later, when the vote coincided with the European Parliament elections, it was 36%.

And when the vote coincided with the General Election in 2015, average turnout rose to 65%. The lowest turnout in the country last year was Chalvey ward in Slough, where just under 43% voted.

England's most engaged voters

Bastwell had biggest average turnout


Average turnout over 3 elections

  • 75% Asian/Asian British residents

  • Bottom 14% for deprivation

  • Bottom 12% for employment

  • Bottom 7% for education

Getty Images

Ingrid Koehler, senior policy researcher at think tank the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), said: "It's disappointing, but not surprising, that some wards across the country appear disengaged based on voter turnout. It's important to remember that many people, including those who don't vote, have regular interactions with local government - far more so than with central government.

"Still, there are many systemic reasons why turnout in local elections is low. For too long, local government has been treated as the delivery arm of national government. As local devolution progresses, hopefully people will see more reason to make the effort to decide who represents them locally."

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