Four in 10 candidates for May’s local elections in England, Scotland and Wales suffered abuse, threats or intimidation, rising to seven in 10 in Northern Ireland, the UK election watchdog found.

The response received by the Election Commission from more than 1,000 candidates exposed the alarming level of such behaviour, saying the ministers needed to take urgent steps to address the situation.

While the electoral law, passed earlier this year, brought in new restrictions on intimidation, the commission warned that the slow rollout of changes to the law, including the controversial requirement for voters to show ID, risks putting additional pressure on already stretched electoral bodies. .

Commission research into abuse or intimidation at May’s election found that 40% of candidates in England said they had experienced this, 44% in Scotland, 40% in Wales and 71% in Northern Ireland.

Most of the abuse or threats were online, either from identifiable members of the public or anonymous users.

The study had an element of self-selection in that candidates were invited to complete the survey either by a shared link or direct email, rather than being selected as a representative sample. In total, 1,204 responses were received, ranging from 4% of all candidates in England to just under 30% in Northern Ireland.

Candidates were asked to rate on a scale of one to five how much threat, abuse or intimidation was an issue for them in the election, with no problem at all and five being a serious problem. Those who selected two or more were counted as having experienced it.

Craig Westwood, the commission’s director of communications, policy and research, said: “Urgent action is needed to prevent abuse and intimidation of candidates and campaigners at elections. It is essential that candidates can participate in elections without fear.

“The commission will work with the government and the wider electoral community to ensure we understand what is driving this issue, and that it is addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Many electoral groups across the UK have complained about staffing or finding suitable locations for polling stations and counts, Westwood said, adding that new requirements such as voter ID laws would “put extra pressure on electoral groups in local councils, whose powers are already under strain”.

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He said: “There have been significant delays in the development of legislation setting out the details of these new requirements. We are concerned about the impact of this delay on the effective implementation of the changes.

“The UK Government should ensure that policies are introduced with adequate funding and sufficient time for voters and electoral parties to prepare.”

The Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities, which now has responsibility for electoral matters, was contacted for comment.

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