Voters and Voting in Britain

The simple majority system of voting is used in parliamentary elections in Britain. This means that the candidate with the largest number of votes in each constituency is elected, although he or she may not necessarily have received more than half the votes cast.

It is thought that this system favours two-party competition, particularly when the parties' support is concentrated geographically. It does not favour parties whose support is spread across constituencies, as they tend to accumulate relatively small numbers of votes in each constituency and consequently do not win many seats.

Voting is by secret ballot.

Who may vote
All British citizens may vote provided they are aged 18 years or over and are not legally barred from voting. Subject to the same conditions, citizens of other Commonwealth countries and the Irish Republic who are resident in Britain may also vote at parliamentary elections. All voters must be registered as resident in a constituency on a specified date.
British citizens living abroad may apply to be registered to vote for up to 20 years after leaving Britain. They must register to vote in the constituency in which they were last resident. British citizens who are working overseas as British Government employees also have the right to vote, regardless of how long they have been abroad.

Voting in elections is voluntary. On average about 75 per cent of the electorate votes.

Who may not vote
The following people are not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections:
- peers, and peeresses in their own right, who are members of the House of Lords;
- people kept in hospital under mental health legislation;
- people serving prison sentences; and
- people convicted within the previous five years of corrupt or illegal election practices.

History of the Right to Vote in Britain

Registering voters
An electoral register for each constituency is prepared annually by electoral registration officers - usually senior local government officers.
Registration officers arrange either to send forms to, or for their representatives to call on, every household in the constituency. Householders must give details of all occupants who are eligible to vote; failure to do so may lead to the individuals concerned being fined.

The information is used to compile provisional electoral lists, which are displayed in public places in order to give people the opportunity to check that their names are included or to object to inclusions. People who disagree with the final decision of the registration officer may appeal to the courts.

Postal and proxy voting
Voters who are likely to be away from home at the time of an election - for example, on holiday or business - or who are unable to vote in person at the polling station, may apply for a postal or a proxy vote. The latter is a vote cast by a person authorised to vote on behalf of another. Postal ballot papers can be sent only to addresses in Britain.

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