Early signs of a rock-bottom turnout emerged as counting in the police commissioners elections got under way.

In Wiltshire, the only area due to declare a result overnight, it was reported that barely one in seven electors had made it to the booths in Swindon. Turnout in the town was just 14.68%. It was even lower at nearby Devizes at 10.41%

Unofficial turnouts in other parts of Wiltshire were also low. In Salisbury the turnout was 11.89%, while in Trowbridge it was only 10.95%. In Chippenham, it was even lower at 10.85%. The picture in other parts of the country is similar and voters took to Twitter to report turnout as low as 10% in some areas.

Labour criticised the low turnout on Friday morning. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the elections had proved a "shambles". She said: "We warned the Government repeatedly that they had the wrong approach and that turnout would be low.

"Theresa May and David Cameron didn't listen and it is shocking that they have spent £100 million on these elections rather than on 3,000 police constables instead. Time and again on the doorstep people told us either they didn't have enough information, didn't know the elections were happening, didn't support them or didn't want to go out in the dark to vote."

In the most radical shake-up of the service for half a century, the new commissioners, who are expected to earn up to £100,000 a year, will control police budgets, set priorities and have the power to hire and fire chief constables. Elections are being held in 41 police areas outside London. The Electoral Reform Society predicted a turnout of 18.5%, which would be below the previous record low in a national poll in peacetime of 23% in the 1999 European elections.

The society's chief executive, Katie Ghose, said: "This election has been a comedy of errors from start to finish. The Home Office has operated under the assumption that 'if you build it they will come'. Democracy just doesn't work that way. There have been avoidable errors at every step, and those responsible should be held to account."

Critics claim the police reforms will lead to the politicisation of the service, with police and crime commissioners (PCCs) championing populist measures at the expense of less headline-worthy initiatives. Although the commissioners will be there to hold the force to account, opponents fear they will attempt to interfere with day-to-day operational matters.

But supporters insist they will improve accountability among police forces and make them more aware of the priorities of local demands. Home Secretary Theresa May argues that the commissioners will become the "voice of the people" and will be "visible, accessible and accountable".

Turnouts were announced in Greater Manchester ahead of the count later on Friday. The turnout for Greater Manchester as a whole was 13.46% while in Wigan it was 11.42%, in Rochdale 12% and in Oldham 12.59%. Turnout was 12.49% in Manchester. The turnout was greater at 20% for a local by-election in the Manchester Central constituency of Ardwick.