Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into black people, racism and human rights: Electoral Commission response

The Electoral Commission is the independent statutory body which oversees elections and referendums and regulates political finance in the UK. We work to promote public confidence and participation in the democratic process and ensure its integrity.

Significant numbers of black people are not registered to vote. Indeed, our research shows that people who are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are less likely to be involved at in the democratic process in the UK than people who are white.

We welcome this opportunity to share with you some of the evidence we have collected about electoral registration relating to ethnicity[1]; our evidence shows there is clearly work to be done to ensure black people register to vote and vote in elections. Our submission also sets out details of our current communications and policy work to contribute to addressing this challenge. In the coming year we will also be seeking out further opportunities, both directly and working with others, towards increasing equality in registration and participation.

Our research findings

A range of factors affect how likely someone is to be registered to vote, from age to how long someone has lived in their home. Our research has consistently found that young people, students and those who have recently moved are least likely to be registered.

When comparing data on different racial groups in the UK it is important to note their different demographic profiles. All of which are the biggest factors as to whether someone is on the electoral register, regardless of ethnicity. These demographic factors also influence people’s attitudes and knowledge around voting.

Electoral registration

Our research has consistently shown that eligible citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to be registered to vote than those citizens from white backgrounds. This is shown in the chart below.

Our latest research from our study of the 1 December 2018 registers shows that completeness was highest among those from white backgrounds (84%). It was lowest among those from “other” ethnic groups (62%), almost half of whom identify as Arabic. For people from an Asian or black background, completeness levels were found to be similar (76% and 75% respectively), while for people from mixed backgrounds it was 69%[2].


Figure 1, Electoral Commission, Accuracy and Completeness 2014, 2015, 2018

As part of the research, we sought to isolate particular factors to understand the effect they each have on someone’s likelihood to register. We found that the biggest factors that affect how likely someone is to register were age, period of residence, and tenure of housing. This is consistent with our findings from previous such studies.

People from BAME backgrounds are more likely to be members of these under-registered groups: statistically, they are more likely to be younger (BAME communities have a lower average age[3] than the overall population); they are less likely to own their own home[4], and more likely to have persistent low income[5] and of lower social grade[6]. However, this does not entirely explain their lower registration levels, and we therefore define ethnicity as a specific additional factor.[7]

Looking more broadly, our recent public opinion research shows that people from BAME backgrounds:


We see similar patterns in relation to voting in elections. Respondents to our surveys who are from BAME backgrounds are less likely to say they voted than white respondents. As with registration, there are other factors which influence someone’s likelihood to vote and knowledge of how to vote, such as age and social class. Most recently, our public opinion research after the 2019 UK Parliamentary general election showed that (self-reported) turnout among BAME respondents was 55%, compared to 70% of white respondents. BAME respondents are also less likely to say they feel confident they know how to cast their vote at an election (84%) compared to white respondents (93%)[11].

Continuing reform and modernisation

Our research findings highlight the complex and overlapping nature of the under-registered groups in society. In order to have the greatest effect in decreasing the disparity of registration levels, it is therefore important to improve the electoral registration system overall.

The UK’s governments have recently enabled welcome changes to the annual canvass process. These should help Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) tackle under-registration by enabling better targeting of resources in areas of greatest need, leading to more effective identification and registration of eligible electors. 

Beyond this positive step, more far-reaching reforms of the electoral registration system should be planned to fully address the challenges of achieving accurate and complete registers. In July 2019 we published the findings from a series of feasibility studies, which looked at the potential for giving EROs access to data from other public service providers; integrating electoral registration into other public service transactions; and automatic or more automated forms of registration.[12] We found that all of these reforms were feasible from a technical and operational perspective and could be implemented without radically altering the structure of the electoral registration system in the UK.

Making better use of existing public data sources could help to improve levels of completeness among the main under registered groups, all of which disproportionately are more likely to come from BAME backgrounds.

Driving voter registration

We have a statutory duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems, a key aspect of which is our work to increase voter registration ahead of an election and to inform electors on how to participate in elections.

We target our voter registration campaign activity disproportionately towards the known under-registered groups. Findings from the evaluation of our local government elections campaign in England in May 2019 show:

We know that our mass media advertising is most effective when speaking to those who are incidentally under-registered (i.e. those who simply need a reminder to register) and for those audiences these statistics are encouraging. To reach audiences faced with additional barriers, however, we pursue further routes to communicate.

We develop and share campaign resources to enable other organisations, particularly those with existing communities from under-registered groups, to be able to benefit from our investment and to extend the reach of the voter registration message. We also generate media coverage about voter registration, and target programmes and publications which are particularly consumed by our target audiences.

We also continue to support local authorities and EROs, who have existing relationships with organisations who represent black people at the local level. We provide information about under-registered groups and resources which can be used locally. These include for example strategies, for use as a basis for generating ideas about how to address the demographics and registration challenges in their local area.

Endnote – our evidence base

The Electoral Commission has measured the quality of the electoral registers (accuracy and completeness) in the UK since 2014. Accuracy measures the number of false entries on the electoral registers; completeness measures whether those eligible are on the registers. Our most recent report, published in September 2019, focused on the accuracy and completeness of the 1 December 2018 registers.

We also undertake public opinion research after every election and run an annual “Winter Tracker” survey – designed to provide an overview of public attitudes to the process of voting and democracy in the UK.

In addition, as part of our voter registration activity we undertake campaign tracking research to evaluate the success of our awareness campaign and inform future campaign strategy.

Although the public opinion surveys have limitations in that our BAME samples are too small to allow analysis of differences between the ethnicities, they do provide us with a valuable insight into public perceptions of electoral registration. Where necessary, our response refers to people from BAME backgrounds rather than specifically black people.

[1] Detail on how we collected the data can be found in the endnote.

[2] Electoral Commission, Accuracy and Completeness 2014, 2015, 2018

[3] 2011 England and Wales Census, as published at

[4] English Housing Survey 2017 to 2018 as published at

[5] Income Dynamics 2010 to 2017

[6] Longitudinal Small Business Survey 2018 as published at

[7] Electoral Commission, Accuracy and Completeness 2018

[8] Electoral Commission, UK Parliamentary Election Post poll Public opinion, 2020

[9] Electoral Commission, Winter Tracker, 2020

[10] Electoral Commission, UK Parliamentary Election Post poll Public opinion, 2020

[11] Electoral Commission, Winter Tracker, 2020


[12] Electoral Commission, Modernising electoral registration: feasibility studies, 2019. Published at

[13] Electoral Commission Campaign Tracking Research April/May 2019