Exploring the franchise: Who can vote in UK elections?

Author:
Thea Ridley-Castle, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 25th May 2023

The franchise has been in the news recently due to Labour considering plans to extend the franchise to resident EU citizens and 16 and 17 year olds. The question of who gets to vote in UK elections is actually more complicated to answer than you might think.

Rather than being a uniform scheme across the UK, the voting franchise has different parameters depending on which election is taking place and where in the UK the election is happening. The age at which voting starts varies, as do the nationalities of those who are allowed to vote. In some parts of the UK some prisoners can vote and in other elections members of the House of Lords are banned.

Who can vote in UK parliamentary elections?

For UK Parliamentary elections you must be over the age of 18 to vote to vote. Obviously, British citizens in the UK can vote, but so can British citizens who have been overseas for under 15 years. While the government included provisions to extend this to life in the Elections Act, the Act was rushed through parliament and this part is yet to be implemented.

Due to historic links, resident Irish citizens are also allowed to vote as are resident Commonwealth citizens with leave to remain, or if they don’t require leave to remain. 56 independent countries make up the Commonwealth in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.

Citizens of other countries, convicted prisoners and members of the House of Lords are not allowed to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. Although those committed to prison for contempt of court, non-payment of a fine or on remand can vote.

Voting qualifiers Yes/No
Voting age 18
British citizens Yes
British overseas voters Yes
Resident Irish citizens Yes
Resident qualifying Commonwealth citizens Yes
Citizens of other countries No
Convicted prisoners detained in prison No
Members of the House of Lords (excluding Bishops) No

 

Who can vote in English local elections?

The only difference between the franchise for UK-wide elections and for England only elections, which includes Police and Crime Commissioners, elected Mayors and council / parish council elections, is that resident EU citizens can vote.

Voting qualifiers Yes/No
Voting age 18
British citizens Yes
British overseas voters Yes
Resident Irish citizens Yes
Resident qualifying Commonwealth citizens Yes
Citizens of other countries Resident EU citizens
Convicted prisoners detained in prison No
Members of the House of Lords Yes

 

Elections are a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which means they get to decide their own rules for elections that happen wholly within their boundaries.

Who can vote in Scottish parliament and Scottish local elections?

Scotland was the first part of the UK to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote, along with any legally resident foreign national. Scotland is also the only place in the UK where convicted and detained prisoners are allowed to vote, however they are only allowed to vote if their sentence is for 12 months or less.

These qualifiers apply to the Scottish Parliament, local and community council and national parks authority elections.

Voting qualifiers Yes/No
Voting age 16
British citizens Yes
British overseas voters No
Resident Irish citizens Yes
Resident qualifying Commonwealth citizens Yes
Citizens of other countries Anyone legally a resident
Convicted prisoners detained in prison Only if the conviction is less than 12 months
Members of the House of Lords Yes

 

Who can vote in Elections in Wales?

In Wales, 16 and 17 year olds can vote along with any legally resident foreign nationals.

These qualifiers apply to the Welsh Parliament / Senedd Cymru, Council and community council and national parks authority elections.

The Police and Crime Commissioner (PPC) elections cover England and Wales so are reserved to the UK parliament, therefore they use the same criteria as specified across the UK for the PCC elections (18+ years old and a resident of the EU).

Voting qualifiers Yes/No
Voting age 16 (18 for Police and Crime Commissioner)
British citizens Yes
British overseas voters No
Resident Irish citizens Yes
Resident qualifying Commonwealth citizens Yes
Citizens of other countries Anyone legally resident (only resident EU citizens can vote for police and crime commissioner)
Convicted prisoners detained in prison No
Members of the House of Lords Yes

 

The franchise in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, Resident EU citizens are allowed to vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Council elections. Unlike Scotland and Wales though, the voting age is 18.

Voting qualifiers Yes/No
Voting age 18
British citizens Yes
British overseas voters No
Resident Irish citizens Yes
Resident qualifying Commonwealth citizens Yes
Citizens of other countries Resident EU citizens
Convicted prisoners detained in prison No
Members of the House of Lords Yes

How will the Elections Act 2022 affect the franchise?

As a member of the European Union, British citizens could vote in local elections across Europe, and EU citizens could vote in British local elections.

Now we are outside the EU, the UK Government is negotiating reciprocal voting rights with each EU country individually.

The Elections Act set out plans to change the franchise for:

  • local elections in England,
  • local and devolved elections in Northern Ireland,
  • Police and Crime Commissioner elections, in England and Wales.

The planned changes are different depending on whether the EU citizen was resident in the UK before or after the implementation or transition period of the Withdrawal Agreement.

EU citizens resident in the UK before 1 January 2020 will retain their voting and candidacy rights.

EU citizens resident in the UK from 1 January 2020 will only get local election voting rights if a reciprocal voting agreement is reached with their country of origin. At present, the only countries this has been agreed with is Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland.

These rules have not been implemented yet, as the Elections Act was rushed through parliament and gave broad powers for government ministers to write the actual regulations after it was passed.

Let’s have votes at 16 for all elections

We’ve long campaigned for standardising the age that people can first vote to 16 across all elections in the UK. The way people come into contact with politics in their formative years is crucially important for the future of our democracy.

16 is a better age to start voting – 16 and 17 year olds have higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24 year-olds – with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections. They accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age group.

If you vote, you are more likely to vote in future. So as 18 year olds who don’t vote become 50 year olds who don’t vote, 16 and 17 year olds who do vote will continue to vote as they age.

Extending the right to vote would allow a seamless transition from learning about voting to putting it into practice.

Add your name - extend the right to vote

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