Electoral registration in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, suffrage is determined by registration on the electoral roll.

Voters must be on the electoral roll in order to vote in national, local or European elections. Registration is mandatory pursuant to Section 23 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001[1] and violators are liable on summary conviction and face a maximum fine of £1,000.

Registration was introduced for all constituencies as a result of the Reform Act 1832, which took effect for the election of the same year. Since 1832, only those registered to vote can do so, and the government invariably runs nonpartisan get out the vote campaigns for each election to expand the franchise as much as possible.

Current procedure

A voting card is sent to each registrant shortly before any elections. This does not need to be taken to the polling station, instead it serves to remind individuals of the exact details they provided to the electoral register.[2] A fixed address is required to vote; if someone wishes to vote but lacks a fixed address for some reason, they may register to vote by filling in a 'Declaration of local connection' form. This establishes a connection to the area based on the last fixed address someone had, or the place where they are likely to spend a substantial amount of their time (e.g. a homeless shelter).[3]

The current system of registration, introduced by the Labour government is known as rolling registration whereby electors can register with a local authority at any time of the year. This replaced the twice-yearly census of electors which often disenfranchised those who had moved during the interval between censuses. In Great Britain the head of household is required to list eligible voters in his household.[4]

Individual Electoral Registration

The current system is controversial as it is possible for one person to delete people who may live with them from the electoral roll. Individual registration pursuant to the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 is planned.[4]

Following an experiment in Northern Ireland using personal identifiers, such as National Insurance numbers and signatures, the number of registered electors fell by some ten thousand; it is understood that this may have taken off the electoral roll fictitious voters. In 2012 the Coalition Government of David Cameron brought forward the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill which is intended to modernise the registration process and make individuals responsible for their own electoral registration. [5]


Before 1832

Before 1832, the only form of voter registration in the United Kingdom was in the Scottish counties. This consisted of a meeting of potential electors called to determine who was eligible to vote. As the electorate for these seats was extremely small—in 1788, it ranged between 16 electors for Clackmannanshire and 187 for Fife—meetings were an important part of the political process; often, elections were determined by registering or disqualifying electors. In the rest of Britain and Ireland, people who claimed to be qualified voters simply presented themselves at the hustings to vote. If a candidate who lost thought his defeat was due to ineligible voters, he could ask for a scrutiny, which would turn out to be an expensive and lengthy process in large constituencies.

In England land tax lists were sometimes used as substitutes for a register. However, not all qualified voters paid land tax, and eligibility was at the discretion of the returning officer as to who was permitted to vote. The High Sheriff of the county, or the mayor of a borough, would often abuse their authority as ex officio returning officers for partisan purposes. A losing candidate could petition the House of Commons if he suspected that the returning officer had abused their power.

In 1788, Parliament attempted to introduce voter registration. The scheme failed—registering only one hundred voters in Lancashire—and was abandoned after a year. Parliament attempted again in 1832, when Sir James Graham introduced legislation that would shift the focus of eligibility to the registration process.

Registration process from 1832

In 1832 the overseers of the poor in each parish, who at that time compiled information relevant to electoral qualifications in order to collect local taxes, were given the additional task of compiling the electoral register. The new Act of Parliament required that on 20 June in each year in the counties, the overseers publish a notice calling on prospective voters to make a claim and prove their eligibility to vote. Once an elector had done so, he would be re-listed every time unless his circumstances or eligibility changed. In July, the overseers in the counties would compile a draft register for elections to be held in the coming year. If any elector's eligibility was challenged, the objection was recorded and the elector was given notice to appeal. The list of objections was published during the first two weeks of September.

In the boroughs, the rate-book—which the overseers already compiled—provided a natural basis for the electoral register. An elector who had paid his rates up to the start of the registration period did not need to make a claim, unless there had been a change of address or qualification. By 20 July the assessors and collectors of taxes had to report to the overseers the names of those who were in arrears with payment of their rates. The overseers then compiled a draft electoral register of all those they considered as being qualified to vote. Separate lists of people qualified to vote by virtue of their status as freemen of the borough were prepared by the Town Clerk. The combined lists of all prospective voters were published by the last day of July. Anyone else who claimed to be qualified to vote or who objected was required to give notice to the overseers.

From this point onwards the process for finalising the electoral register was the same for all areas. Barristers were appointed by senior judges to hold courts which sat from mid-September to the end of October. The barristers reviewed statements from the officials who had drawn up the lists, from claimants, and from objectors in order to produce the final list of qualified electors. The procedure involved strict compliance with the law and even minor clerical errors invalidated a claim. A well-qualified person could be put to the time and trouble of defending his vote, even against a worthless objection, because if he did not appear his claim was automatically rejected. This system was difficult and expensive to operate. It encouraged the development of party organisation, as legally qualified agents were needed to defend the claims of party supporters and challenge the eligibility of those supporting opponents.

The dates on which electoral registers came into force were changed from time to time and sometimes varied across different parts of the country: in England and Wales, registers came into force on 1 November between 1832 and 1842, and 1 January between 1844 and 1915. The 1832 system broke down during the First World War: registers were not revised after 1915, and with many voters serving in the armed forces or relocating in order to take up war work, the registers became very outdated.

The passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which introduced suffrage for men aged 21 and enfranchised some women from the age of 30, gave the opportunity for revising the process of electoral registration. Responsibility for preparing electoral registers was taken away from the overseers of the poor and given to local authorities. Suffrage was also expanded—or restricted—by following Representation Acts:


  1. ^ Full text of Section 23 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 (No. 341)
  2. ^ The Electoral Commission. "Voting in person". Retrieved 4 August 2010. 
  3. ^ The Electoral Commission. "No fixed address". Retrieved 4 August 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "Individual voter ID plan brought forward to 2014".  
  5. ^ Cabinet Office, May 9, 2012, THE QUEEN’S SPEECH 2012 – BRIEFING NOTES

Further reading

  • British Electoral Facts 1832–1987, compiled and edited by F.W.S. Craig (Parliamentary Research Services, 5th edition, 1989)
  • Electoral Reform in England and Wales, by Charles Seymour (David and Charles 1970, first printed 1915)
  • The House of Commons 1754–1790, by Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke (HMSO 1964)
  • The Parliaments of England by Henry Stooks Smith (1st edition published in three volumes 1844–50), second edition edited (in one volume) by F.W.S. Craig (Political Reference Publications 1973)
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