Introduction to voting

So long as you know how to make a cross on a bit of paper, we'll hold your hand for the hard bit.

Woman using ballot box

You can't vote online - yet.

Why vote?

In a democracy, every resident over a certain age has an equal right to say who they would like to see represent them in government. This is expressed through voting, in which each voter makes their selection from a list of candidates. The electoral process may differ depending on what kind of election is being staged (i.e. whether it’s a local election, general election or nominations to find a treasurer for the Sunday soccer team).

What can I vote for?

As long as you are on the electoral register, and entitled to vote, you can vote in the following elections:

  • Local government elections (e.g. borough and county council elections);
  • Devolved elections (e.g. Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, London Mayoral elections);
  • Parliamentary elections (often called general elections);
  • European Parliament Elections.

You are also entitled to vote in referendums. This occurs when the Government throws open a policy-decision to the public and invites them to vote on a certain issue (i.e. whether the UK should adopt the Single European Currency). Referendums on devolution have been held in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the North-East of England, but there hasn’t been a full referendum since 1975.

How do I get on the register?

You need to be on the Electoral Register.

Do you need ID to vote in the UK?

Yes, you now need photo ID to vote in the UK since the conservative government changed the rules about voting in 2023.

What type of ID required to vote in the UK?

A driving licence, a passport or a PASS card is required to vote in the UK. If you don’t have any of these, you can also apply for a free ‘Voter authority certificate’ via the government’s website. You’ll need a recent passport style photo and your National Insurance number.

Apply for a voter authority certificate.

I’m registered, how do I vote?

You should get a poll card about a week before the election. This will tell you how to vote, when and also where (usually a nearby school or community hall). This card is for information only. Don’t worry if you lose it or forget it – you can still vote without it. It just makes it easier if you take it to the polling station and show it to the clerk. They will give you a ballot paper that is stamped with an official mark. Don’t forget to bring your photo ID or voter authority certificate.

The ballot paper will say how many candidates you can vote for. (In local elections you may have more than one vote; in parliamentary elections you will have only one vote.) Take the ballot paper to one of the polling booths and put a cross in the box next to the name of the candidate(s) you want to support.

DO NOT write anything else on the ballot paper, otherwise your vote might not count. Once you have voted you must fold the ballot paper to hide your vote. Then show your folded ballot paper to the clerk before you put it in the locked ballot box. You don’t have to tell anyone who you voted for.

If you need help voting then ask one of the clerks. You can ask them to fill in the ballot paper if you have difficulty reading; but obviously they can’t tell you who to vote for!

Most polling stations are open from 7am to 10pm, and it will take less than five minutes, so you should be able to find some time in the day to vote.

I’m going to be away for the election, can I still vote?

If you know you are going to be away on the day of the election you have two options; you can either request a postal vote or get someone to vote on your behalf.

Getting someone else to cast your vote

If you want someone to go to the polling station on your behalf, you must request a proxy vote. Simply giving them your polling card and them turning up in your place is a criminal offence.

You need to contact your local council to ask for a proxy vote. They’ll ask you to complete a form and return it; nominating who you want to vote for you. Remember that they need to be someone you trust, as they’ll be choosing the candidate that you have told them to.

You usually need to return the form at least two weeks before the election date.

Voting by post

Changes in the rules mean that anyone can register for a postal vote, even without a reason. You need to contact your local council and they’ll ask you to complete a form. Make sure you return the form at least two weeks before the election date.

Postal votes are only sent out one week before the election date and need to be returned in time for the polling day. Bear that in mind if you are abroad, where postal services can be unreliable.

Some councils have trialled 100% postal votes; although so far it hasn’t been particularly successful.

Next Steps




Updated on 29-Sep-2015

Woman voting by Shutterstock