Just one in five people were able to make an informed decision when voting for their £100,000-a-year police and crime commissioner (PCC), the independent elections watchdog has said in a damning report.
The Government wrongly assumed that "simply holding" an election was enough on its own to inspire participation and should make significant changes before the next PCC elections in three years, the Electoral Commission said.
Just 15.1% of registered voters took part in the November 2012 PCC election - the lowest recorded level of participation at a peacetime non-local government election in Britain. More than a third, or 37%, of those who did not vote blamed a lack of awareness, the Electoral Commission said, while nearly half of all Britons did not know "very much" about the elections.
PCCs, which replaced existing police authorities in 41 force areas across England and Wales, were handed the power to set force budgets and even hire and fire chief constables.
Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson said: "There were many different reasons why people didn't vote last November and like any election there's a limit to how much these can be addressed by decisions Government can make. But one of them was not knowing about the candidates and something can be done about that. It's not enough to think that simply holding an election will inspire participation. That's why at the 2016 PCC elections a candidate information booklet must be sent to every household."
The Electoral Commission's report found that more than a quarter, 28%, of people said they knew "nothing at all" about the PCC elections, while more than half, 55%, found it difficult to access information about the candidates. And just under 6% of the eligible electorate logged on to the Home Office website, choosemypcc.org.uk.
The Commission found that key pieces of legislation necessary for the election to happen were finalised too close to polling day. An order specifying a bi-lingual ballot paper only came into force 14 days before the election, resulting in English-only ballot papers being destroyed at a £135,000 cost to the taxpayer.
As a result, the Commission wants the Home Office to set out by May 2014 how it will manage changes to the existing PCC legislation ahead of the next polls in 2016.
Meanwhile, the report found that nearly half or 44% of all PCC candidates found it difficult to get the 100 signatures required for their nomination to stand - this compares to only 10 needed for a parliamentary election. Some 39% of candidates also said it was difficult to raise the £5,000 deposit required for their nomination, which compares to £500 deposit for parliamentary elections.
Last month, the Association of Electoral Administrators said voters were not at the heart of the process for the PCC elections. And a separate poll from the Electoral Reform Society found that almost 90% of people cannot name the PCC in their area.