Following the May 2019 local elections a number of media stories suggested that voters had voiced their dissatisfaction with the state of politics, and particularly the delay to Brexit, by spoiling their ballots.

The Independent stated:

Disillusioned voters have vented their anger at both the Conservatives’ and Labour’s handling of Brexit by spoiling their ballot papers in local council elections.

Voters up and down the country turned out to vote for none of the candidates on their ballot papers in a bid to send a message to the main political parties.

Many posted pictures of their papers on social media with messages demanding the government delivers the Brexit result voted for in the 2016 referendum.

But is there any evidence that this was the case? This Insight looks at the number of spoilt ballots in the five areas which had the highest proportion of ‘leave’ votes in 2016. These areas have been chosen with the assumption being they will have the highest voter disillusionment. None of the top five ‘remain’ areas had local elections in 2019.

What is a spoilt ballot paper?

Ballot papers can be ‘spoilt’ in different ways – such as writing a message on the paper but not indicating a vote, voting for more than one candidate, or revealing the voter’s identity. A paper which had been written on like those reported in the media would probably classified as spoilt because the voter’s intention was uncertain. Declarations of election results by local authorities generally include a count of the total number of spoilt ballots and the broad reasons they were rejected.

Spoilt ballots in five ‘leave’ areas

In the 2016 EU referendum the local authority areas with the highest leave vote were: Boston (75.6%), South Holland (73.6%), Castle Point (72.7%) Thurrock (72.3%), Great Yarmouth (71.5%). All these authorities had local elections on 2 May 2019.

So how many spoilt ballots were there in the top five areas? And how many of these were rejected for reason of uncertainty?

The results of local elections are not centrally reported, the following data is from the local authorities themselves. The table below shows the percentage of ballot papers which were spoilt in 2015 and 2019 elections and the difference between them.

Spoilt ballots
  2015 2019 % pt change
Authority % all ballots % all ballots ’15–’19
Boston 0.5 1.7 1.2
South Holland 1.9 1.3 -0.6
Thurrock 0.7 1.9 1.2
Castle Point 1.9 2.1 0.2
Great Yarmouth 0.5 4.8 4.3

In four of the five areas, spoilt ballots in 2019 were higher than in 2015, the last time these seats were up for election. While turnout in the most recent elections was lower than in 2015, which coincided with a General Election, the absolute number of spoilt votes which were classified as invalid for ‘being unmarked or whole void for uncertainty’ was higher in 2019 than four years earlier. This is a subset of all spoilt ballot papers.

Ballot papers rejected being unmarked or wholly void for uncertainty
Authority 2015 2019
Boston 115196
South Holland51191
Castle Point319335
Great Yarmouthnana

So, while the number of rejected votes remained small relative to the total poll, it does look like the number and rate of votes that were rejected increased in these elections, in these five areas at least. However, the data suggests that the incidence of spoiling ballots in protest may have been less than some of the media stories implied.

Is Brexit the only reason people might have spoilt their ballot?

It’s worth noting that in some cases, the lack of candidate choice or specific circumstances in a ward was associated with a relatively high number of votes being spoiled. In Thurrock, for example, in the Chadwell St Mary ward there was an additional casual vacancy following the resignation of one of the sitting councillors. Around half of the 501 invalid votes in Thurrock were “rejected in part”, which is likely to be where voters used just one of their votes, not necessarily realising they had two. In other areas, the number of spoilt votes was relatively high where the choice of party candidates was limited. In Southtown and Cobham in Great Yarmouth, for example, 13.4% of ballots were spoiled and there were no candidates other than Labour and Conservative.

Further reading

About the author: Richard Cracknell is head of the Social and General Statistics Research Section at the House of Commons Library.

Image: Polling Station: STML: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0