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Elections and voting explained

Elections and voting explainedFind out how elections work and how you can make your voice heard.

Registering to vote

To vote in an election, you need to be registered. You can register to vote online at any time after your 16th birthday, although you won't be able to vote until you are 18. It's a good idea to register as early as you can to make sure that you can vote when the election happens.

You'll need your National Insurance Number to register to vote.

Students can register both at home and in the place where they are studying. They can vote in local elections in both areas, but it's illegal to vote in both areas in a general election.

When you register, you'll be asked if you want to appear on the 'open register'. This is a list of the names and addresses of registered voters which anyone can buy. Appearing on the open register might mean you get more junk mail.

You'll also be asked if you want to apply for a postal vote. Saying 'yes' won't automatically mean you can vote by post. You'll be sent an application form, which you'll need to complete and send back to get your postal vote.

Register to vote.

How to vote

There are three ways to vote:

  • In person, at a polling station
  • By post, if you apply for a postal vote in advance
  • By nominating someone else to go to the polling station for you

Voting in person

In the run-up to the election, you should receive a polling card through the post. This tells you where the polling station (the place you go to vote) is. It will normally be a public building, like a school, town hall or church. The polling station will be open from 7am to 10pm on the day of the election, but if you arrive near to closing time and there is a queue, you might not be able to vote.

You don't need to take anything with you to vote, but you can take your polling card to show who you are. The polling station staff will ask for your name and address and give you the voting papers for the elections that are taking place.

You'll go into a polling booth to fill in your papers. This makes sure that nobody else can see how you vote. Each paper will have instructions on how to fill it in: make sure you follow these carefully, or your vote might not count.

When you've filled in your paper, you put it into the ballot box. If there is more than one election, you'll put each paper in a different box, so make sure you match them up properly. They will normally be colour-coded to make this easier.

Voting by post

You can choose to vote by post. If you do, you will be sent your voting papers in advance. You'll need to fill them in at home along with a special form, then post them back using a provided envelope. It's important to post your vote as quickly as possible to make sure it arrives on time, but if you leave it too late, you can take it to the polling station on election day instead.

Anyone can vote by post – you don't need to give a reason. You can download an application form online.

Voting by proxy

In some situations, you can get somebody else to vote for you. This could be an option if you won't be in the country or you have a medical problem that makes it difficult to get to the polling station.

You'll need to fill in a form to do this. Do this as early as possible to make sure your application is dealt with on time – at least a week before election day.

Anyone who is registered and allowed to vote can be your proxy, but it should be someone who you can trust.

Types of election

There are a number of different kinds of election that you might participate in. These will often be scheduled on the same day, so you'll vote in more than one kind of election at once. Make sure you check which elections are taking place well in advance so you can decide who you want to vote for.

General elections

In a general election, you vote to decide who your MP will be. This decides who makes up the government. You'll get a list of the candidates' names and which political party they are standing for, and you can place a single vote for one candidate. Whoever gets the most votes will be the MP for your area.

General elections normally take place every five years.

Local elections

In local elections, you'll vote to decide who sits on your local council. The system is mostly the same as general elections, but you might be able to vote for more than one candidate: check the instructions on your ballot paper carefully.

In some areas, you'll also vote for a mayor. In mayoral elections, you'll get to pick a first and second choice, instead of simply picking a single candidate.

How often local elections happen depends on where you live, but it will be at least once every four years.

By-elections

A by-election is held when an MP, councillor or MEP needs to be elected outside the usual elections. This might happen because they have died or resigned, or because there was a problem with the election. By-elections work in the same way as the normal elections, but they won't be on a regular schedule.

Referendums

A referendum isn't technically an election: instead of being asked to choose between different candidates, you're asked to vote on a particular proposal, such as changing the voting system or the structure of the government. Referendums normally work in the same way as elections, but some of the rules about who can vote may be different. For example, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the voting age was 16 instead of 18.

Make sure you read the question on the paper carefully: if it isn't clearly phrased, you can end up voting the opposite way to the one you intended.

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