Swindon Borough Council – supporting local democracy – voter ID campaign

When the Government announced a series of pilots asking voters to bring identification to the May 2018 local elections, Swindon Borough Council was ready for the challenge. Head of Communications, Phil Avery, explains how the council developed a strategic, targeted and measurable communications plan to help residents across the borough cast their votes.

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. However, as a council we had run successful election pilots in the past and were confident that our elections team would do a great job. The challenge for the organisation was to make sure we protected our reputation while explaining to voters across the borough what ID they were required to bring with them in order to vote. In the Swindon pilot we were asking voters to bring their polling cards as their primary form of ID so our overall objective was to maximise the number of eligible voters who complied with this.

The solution

While the Cabinet Office co-ordinated all five national pilots, including communications, each authority had responsibility for writing and delivering a local communications plan based upon the Government Communication Service’s OASIS model. The OASIS model structures communications planning into several distinct chapters: objectives, audience, strategy, implementation and scoring (evaluation).

As our overall objective was to make sure all eligible voters understood the need to bring their polling cards to vote, we needed to develop a robust campaign strategy which would reach votes across Swindon, including those audiences identified in the diversity impact assessments we carried out.

We had a number of opportunities to promote the message to all registered voters, including when the first letter advising people of the pilot requirements went out, as well as when the actual polling cards were distributed. However we knew that some people throw away post before reading it, and there would be a chance that even those who did open it might forget to bring their polling cards with them.

To mitigate the chance of this we invested in engagement with local community leaders and influencers. We contacted more than 500 groups and successfully engaged with almost half. We cascaded information and campaign materials to them and engaged with them regularly, 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 for this campaign, combining organic activity and paid-for advertising. 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).

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.

The impact

On the day of the election, the new digital voting system we had in place for our pilot allowed us 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 did not vote after being turned away for not having the right ID in contrast to over 62,000 voters who did present ID and cast their vote. This represents just 0.04 per cent of those who who went to a polling station to vote. This was the lowest number of all five pilot areas across the country.

The campaign also performed well against our other objectives. Overall voter turnout increased by six per cent and only 110 people contacted our customer services with voter ID specific queries over the 13-week campaign. We also ran some polling the week before the elections through our customer services team which revealed an 80 per cent awareness level of the campaign in the week before the elections.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

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 provided a valuable opportunity to peer review our approach, as did fortnightly calls with the other council pilots areas.

The pilot also allowed us to demonstrate to colleagues across the council 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. The fact that voter turnout increased also helped to illustrate the impact that effective communications can have on engaging residents in local democracy.

Lessons learned

Our political and managerial leaders were important ambassadors for this campaign which illustrates the vital importance of briefing and engaging them early on. By engaging them at the start we were also able to reassure them that a robust strategy was in place – strengthening the reputation of the communications team. Planning for the worst case scenario was also sensible given the local and national scrutiny of the pilots.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Phil Avery, Head of Communications for Swindon Borough Council.