Decade of going to the polls has cost UK more than £1 billion

A row of ballot boxes Credit: David Jones/PA

At least £1 billion of public money has been spent on holding elections and referendums in the UK this decade, new analysis has found – with December’s snap election set to push the figure even higher.

The combined cost of administering the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections, two nationwide referendums, further referendums in Scotland and Wales, plus a host of other polls, currently stands at an estimated minimum of £1.06 billion.

The figures, which have been compiled by the PA news agency, show the impact on public expenditure of a run of polls unprecedented in recent history in their size and frequency.

Some of the biggest sums spent were:<br>– £129 million on the 2016 EU referendum;<br>– £115 million on the 2015 general election;<br>– £109 million on the 2014 EU elections, with a further £152 million budgeted for this year’s unexpected EU elections.

Next month’s General Election – the fourth this decade – is likely to add at least another £100 million.

The cost of administering elections and referendums is met variously by central government, the devolved administrations or local authorities.

Most money typically goes towards covering fees and expenses of returning officers, plus mailouts of literature such as candidates’ election leaflets.

For example, at the 2015 general election, £73 million was paid to returning officers for services and expenses, while £42 million went on the delivery of mailings.

The total cost of polls so far this decade is likely to be even higher than the estimated £1.06 billion, as this does not include the many local council elections and by-elections that have also taken place.

Philip Cowley, academic and co-author of the British General Election series of books, said the figures reflect a remarkable decade in British democracy.

“We’ve had a combination of an unusually high number of big events – general elections, referendums – and what could be called the ‘new normal’: regular elections for police and crime commissioners, local mayors and the devolved assemblies,” he said.

“This is on top of the familiar cycle of council elections, which has seen people in some parts of the country head to the polls almost every year this decade – sometimes twice in the space of 12 months.

“Together, all these polls have created a very high baseline for activity, of a kind we haven’t really seen before in modern political history.”

Overall, an estimated £349 million has been spent administering general elections this decade, plus £260 million on EU elections, £204 million on nationwide referendums, and £125 million on elections for police and crime commissioners.

Polls for the devolved administrations have added an estimated £54 million, the London mayor and assembly £40 million, referendums in Scotland and Wales £22 million, and English mayoral referendums £3 million.

Responding to PA’s findings, the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) said the frequency of polls in recent years has put a strain on the smooth functioning of the UK’s electoral machinery.

AEA chief executive Peter Stanyon said: “The last decade has seen electoral administrators deliver poll after poll with increasing workloads imposed at a time when council resources have been significantly reduced.

“Recent unscheduled elections have seen them working increased hours over extended days and weekends to deliver polls at incredibly short notice. In both 2017 and 2019 it was not unusual for colleagues to cancel holidays and lean heavily on the support of family and friends to deliver what was expected of them.

“We have increasingly raised concerns with government that our members do not have continued capacity to run democracy on limited staffing and budgets, all underpinned by 100-year-old legislation that is no longer fit for purpose.

“These concerns have not just been raised by us at the AEA. Returning officers, the Electoral Commission and Law Commission have also put forward ideas for reform to ensure that our electoral system works for all citizens and is administratively achievable.”

Note: PA compiled its figures from various sources, including the Cabinet Office, the Electoral Commission, the devolved administrations and other government departments. In a few cases where relevant data has yet to be published, PA used low-end estimates based on the costs of a previous equivalent poll. All figures are actual spending, based on when the information was published, and are not adjusted for inflation.