Electoral Process

In Detail

Types of Electoral Systems

These can be divided into two kinds: majoritarian and proportional representation. Some electoral systems involve aspects of both systems. Voting systems are many and varied and the following is a summary of the most widely used, or discussed:


    Majoritarian systems require one candidate to win a majority of the votes cast in the election; usually no recognition is given to candidates who come second or third. In majoritarian systems, electors are generally voting for an individually-named candidate rather than for a political party.

    • First Past the Post (FPTP)

      This is the electoral system used for general elections in the United Kingdom. Electors in a single constituency vote for a candidate who may, but doesa not have to, belong to a political party and the candidate with the highest number of votes in that constituency is the winning candidate and becomes the MP for that constituency or ‘seat’. Depending on the number of candidates, the person winning the most votes will not necessarily have more than 50% of all the votes cast. The political party with the most MPs in Parliament becomes the Government.

      This system is also used in English and Welsh local government elections.

    • Supplementary Vote (SV)

      This is a very similar to the Alternative Vote. Voters on their ballot papers are required to select their first and second choice of candidate (although they do not have to select a second choice). If any candidate wins more than 50% of the first choice votes cast, he/she is the winner. The key difference between SV and AV systems is that under the SV system if no candidate wins outright on the initial vote, then all but the top two candidates are eliminated, and all the second preferences of the eliminated candidates are allocated to those two candidates (as appropriate). The candidate with the most votes is then the winner. Depending on the number of candidates and whether or not electors opt to indicate a second preference, the winning candidate may or may not have the support of more than 50% of the total votes cast.

      This system is used to elect the London Mayor if there are more than 2 candidates and in mayoral elections at local government level.

    • Alternative Vote (AV) and Alternative Vote Plus

      This system, proposed by the Coalition Government for use in UK general elections, was the subject of a referendum in May 2011. Read the ConSoc briefing paper for more information on the system as it was proposed.

      The winning constituency candidate is required to gain over 50% of the votes cast in the final round of counting. On their ballot papers, electors rank their candidates in order of preference (first, second, third and so on); any candidate gaining outright more than 50% of the first preference votes wins the election. If no candidate wins on first preferences, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is removed and the second preferences indicated on the ballot papers of those who voted for the removed candidate are transferred to the remaining candidates. This process repeats until one candidate gains more than 50% of the votes cast in that round of counting.

      AV Plus is very similar to the Additional Member System (AMS), which is explained below.



    There are many forms of proportional representation. All aim to ensure that a political party is given seats in the legislature according to the proportion of the total votes it receives. Proportional representation is used at European, devolved and local levels of government.

    • List systems

      In systems of proportional representation, every party provides a list of candidates for selection on a regional or national basis. These lists may be open or closed: an open list means electors have the ability to indicate some preference over which of the candidates they choose from the party list; a closed list means electors must vote for the party as a whole and the list is presented to them as a fait accompli. Each party standing for election wins seats in accordance with the proportion of votes it receives.

      A closed list system is used for European parliamentary elections.

    • Single Transferable Vote (STV)

      This is perhaps the most ‘pure’ version of proportional representation. It is also quite complex and difficult to explain simply, because of the different formulae that can be used to calculate what the minimum quota of votes is that each candidate is required to achieve.

      In summary, electors in each constituency rank the candidates for their constituency in order of preference. Candidates must reach a ‘quota’ of votes in order to be elected. If no candidate reaches that quota, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is removed and those votes are redistributed to remaining candidates according to electors’ secondary preferences. Surplus votes for a candidate who reaches that quota are transferred to the remaining candidates until other candidates also reach the required quota. This continues until there are no seats remaining.

      This system is used in Northern Ireland in elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly and for the European Parliament.

    • Additional Member System (AMS)

      AMS is also known as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). It is used in Scottish Parliament elections, Welsh National Assembly elections and London Assembly elections. It is also used in Germany and New Zealand.

      Electors have 2 votes: a constituency vote and a party list vote. Constituency MPs are chosen by FPTP; the party vote is used to ‘top up’ seats to give each party proportionality within the legislature. As with STV, the system by which this is done is complex and difficult to explain simply.[More+]

General Elections at Westminster

The First Past the Post (FPTP) system determines the composition of the House of Commons.


Fixed parliamentary terms were introduced in Westmister by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The legislation dictates that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015, removing the Prime Minister’s power to choose a date of their own choice. According to the Bill, general elections will thereafter take place every five years.


The Act also introduces new measures for dissolving Parliament before the end of the fixed term. According to previous convention, Parliament was immediately dissolved following a vote of no confidence, which required a simple majority in order to be passed. Under the new legislation, a vote for immediate dissolution requires a two thirds majority of MPs, including vacant seats. A simple majority is sufficient for a vote of no confidence but there then ensues a period of two weeks in which the House has the opportunity to pass a vote of confidence in a new government, and so avoid a general election. Parliament will only be dissolved if a new government has not been endorsed in this way within fourteen days.

Previously, the Prime Minister had the power to choose the date of an election. Once the date for a general election had been fixed, there were usually 3-4 weeks of campaigning before election day. By convention, general elections have usually been held on a Thursday. [More+]


Registered electors may either vote via the post or at a polling station. The votes are counted and the candidate having the most number of votes in his or her constituency is identified as having won that constituency seat. A political party which gains the greatest number of seats in Parliament is declared to be the winner of the election, and is invited by the Queen to form the Government.


A “hung parliament” is the result of no political party gaining a majority of seats in the Commons. In this situation, there may need to be negotiations between political parties to see if they can come to an arrangement which will give them a majority in the House: that is, political parties may band together and form a ‘coalition‘ government. If this fails, one political party or a group of parties may agree to form a ‘minority’ government — one which has no majority in the House. If no agreement can be reached at all, there may need to be a second election.

Hung parliaments are not very common at Westminster; until 2010, the most recent example of a general election resulting in a hung parliament was in 1974. However, there have been a number of hung parliaments at a devolved level.


Tactical voting is one means by which electors try to maximise the value of their vote. Tactical voting involves people voting, not for their most preferred candidate, but rather voting in order to prevent their least favoured candidate from winning. So, for instance, a Labour supporter might vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate in their constituency in order to prevent a Tory candidate from winning the seat. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in marginal constituencies—where the margin between candidates is very slim. [More… In recent years tactical voting has become more sophisticated. There are now even websites set up to facilitate ‘vote swapping’—where one elector agrees to swap his or her vote with that of another elector in another constituency. [/more]


650 MPs are elected to the House of Commons, each in a constituency. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 includes provisions to reduce this number to 600.


The drawing of constituency boundaries is an important issue, because inequalities in the size of constituencies can have a distorting effect on the outcome of a vote.


For example: in 3 constituencies A, B and C, constituency A has 100 electors and constituencies B and C have 60 electors. Two political parties contest an election, Orange and Brown. In constituency A, Orange wins 90 votes, Brown 10. In each of Consituencies B and C Orange wins 29 votes and Brown 31. Orange will have one MP, Brown will have 2 and therefore will form the government, even though, overall it has polled much less than half of the votes cast in all 3 constituencies. If there are more than two parties standing in each constituency, the results tend to be more exaggerated, with an even smaller proportion of the vote being able to secure a victory.

Another issue is the question of so-called gerrymandering – the process whereby constituency boundaries are drawn in order to gain a political advantage, for example by splitting an area known for its strong sympathies to a particular political party into two or more constituencies and mixing the voters together with voters of different political views in adjoining constituencies.

The existence of the Boundary Commission (an ‘advisory non-departmental public body funded by the Ministry of Justice’) is designed to ensure that boundaries will be drawn by reference to a set of impartial rules and thus to ensure fairness in the relative sizes of constituencies and to outlaw gerrymandering.


These impartial rules were changed by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011:

  • In the past, boundary reviews happened every 8-12 years. The rules for drawing constituency boundaries prioritised following local authority and natural geographical boundaries above electoral equality.

  • Under the new rules, boundary reviews will take place every 5 years. The first will be reported in 2013. The size of the electorate in each constituency must be within 5% the national average (“ the electoral quota”). The size of the electorate will be the prime consideration. After this, the Boundary Commission will also be able to consider local authority boundaries and geographical considerations.


Eligible voters in UK general elections are British nationals and citizens of Ireland and the Commonwealth resident in the UK over the age of 18 who are registered on the electoral roll. Those who cannot vote include members of the House of Lords, sentenced prisoners, those convicted of corrupt or illegal electoral practices, and those not on the electoral register.


Registration to vote can be done individually by eligible voters. The person must simply apply to be added to the electoral register. In addition, in autumn there is a canvass of every household to check for eligible voters. The householder must give details of all eligible occupants, as well as those who will turn 18 within the next year. The process differs for Northern Ireland, which has a history of electoral fraud.


The UK is moving from this system of household registration to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). Details of the transition are published by the Electoral Commission.


Postal voting is now available on demand to all registered voters. This was seen as a means of increasing election turnout. A person who is already on the electoral register can apply to vote by post. This can be done by filling out and signing an application form and returning the completed form to the local electoral registration office. Ballot papers are then sent about a week before election day. These must be filled in, signed and sent back so that they are received on or before election day. Electors can specify the time for which they wish to vote by post: for one election, a specific time period, or permanently if in the UK.


Postal voting has been the subject of some controversy after it became available on demand because of the lax security requirements and the potential for voter fraud. In 2005, a judge found that six Labour Party representatives in the 2004 Birmingham local elections had committed systematic fraud with at least 3500 votes cast fraudulently. They were able to do this because the postal voting system had a number of flaws, including:

  • The registration process, which could not guarantee that the application had been made by the voter in question; and allowed the ballot paper to be sent to an address different to that of the registered elector
  • There were no means of verifying signatures, or the names and addresses of witnesses
  • Easily identifiable returning envelopes
  • Returning officers had no powers of investigating fraud; and the police had limited knowledge of electoral law
  • The means by which fraud could be investigated was seen as unwieldy

These flaws led to the enactment of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which in particular set out offences for postal fraud, and gave greater powers to police to investigate such allegations. It also set out new requirements for postal voting, such as requiring that signatures and dates of births to be provided on postal vote applications and statements, so that checks can be carried out (electoral administrators are required to check at least 20% of all postal votes); and introduces a marked register of postal votes received. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006 also made changes to the postal registration process, including requiring reasons for the re-direction of postal votes and outcomes of applications for postal voting be confirmed in writing.


Candidates for seats in Westminster must be a British national, a citizen of Ireland or the Commonwealth and be resident in the UK. They must be over the age of 18. Those who cannot stand as candidates include members of the House of Lords, lunatics, bankrupts, civil servants, senior government officials, judges, members of the armed forces and the police. [More]Some of these restrictions are for constitutional reasons: for instance, it would violate the separation of civil and military government to have a member of the armed forces in Parliament, where he or she could influence the work of his or her fellow soldiers; similarly, it would be a violation of the separation of powers to allow a judge to be part of the legislature. [/more]


4134 candidates stood in 649 constituencies in the general election in 2010.


Political parties are associations of people bound together by history and ideology. Most candidates — but not all — belong to one but membership of a political party is not a pre-requisite of standing as a candidate.


Parties organise candidates, provide funding and policy support. For most of the post-war period, Parliament and government have been dominated by two major parties: the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. But the last quarter of a century has seen the ascent of the Liberal Democrats as a third political party of influence in British politics. There are other parties: at the 2010 election, these other parties gained 28 seats at Westminster, or just over 4% of Parliament, having polled just under 12% of the vote.


Administration of a general election is the responsibility of the returning officer of each constituency, a person chosen by the local council. The procedures for the administration of general elections are set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983.


The administration of the general election in 2010 unexpectedly became a highly controversial issue when, in several constituencies, the administrators found themselves unable to cope with the numbers who turned up to vote. This resulted in a number of people being turned away from polling stations and unable to vote, despite having arrived in good time to cast their ballot.

The Electoral Law (Amendment) Bill 2010-12 has been introduced to address this problem. If enacted, it would amend Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to provide that at the close of the poll in a general election, by-election or local government election, electors who were entitled to vote and within the precincts of the polling station would have to be issued with a ballot paper and allowed to vote.


The independent Electoral Commission has a number of duties, including overseeing the registration of, donations to, and campaign expenditure of political parties. It also advises government on proposed changes to electoral law, assists those involved in elections and determines the boundaries of local government constituencies.


The cost of administering the 2005 general election was £80 million.


There are strict limits on the amounts that political parties can spend on electoral campaigning in the 365 days leading up to an election. This is monitored by the Electoral Commission. Generally speaking, a political party can spend up to £30000 per constituency contested; if all seats were contested this would amount to a total spend of over £19 million.

Additionally there are separate limits on the amount that may be spent by individual candidates on their electoral campaigns in the lead-up to an election. These limits were amended by the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009.


→ The 2010 General Election Results were as follows:

Note, the vote in the Yorkshire constituency of Thirsk and Malton will not take place until May 2010, as a result of the death of one of the candidates during the campaigning period


→ The 2005 General Election Results were as follows:

The Devolved Administrations


    The composition of the Scottish Parliament is determined by a proportional representation system (AMS). There are 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament: 73 are elected by constituency vote and the remaining 56 by party vote. Elections are fixed—constitutionally required—every 5 years.



    The composition of the Welsh National Assembly is determined by a proportional representation system (AMS). There are 60 AMs (Assembly Members): 40 are elected by constituency vote and the remainder by party vote. There is a fixed 5-year electoral term.



    The composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly is determined by a proportional representation system (STV). There are 108 MLAs (members of the Legislative Assembly), representing 18 constituencies. Each constituency is represented by 6 MLAs. There is a fixed 4-year term.

Sub-National Government


    The London Mayor and the London Assembly are determined by 3 different electoral systems. The Mayor is elected by first past the post where there are only 2 candidates; if there are more than 2 candidates, the SV system is used. The London Assembly is determined by proportional representation (AMS). There are 25 London Assembly members: 14 Assembly Members each represent one of the 14 constituencies; the remainder represent London as a whole. There is a fixed 4-year term for the Assembly and Mayor.



    The nature and structure of local government depends on location. In England and Wales, the electoral system is FPTP, but the individual constituencies for councillors (often referred to as ‘wards’) are much smaller than the constituencies used in a general election; in Scotland and Northern Ireland the STV is used. Elections are held every 4 years.

Unelected officials

Members of the House of Lords are not elected, but are either hereditary peers or are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. The House of Lords Reform Draft Bill was introduced in May 2011 for pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of MPs and Lords.  The Bill proposes a move to an 80% elected upper house, with the remaining members appointed by recommendation of the Prime Minister.  The new House of Lords would be made up of 300 members, with the 240 elected members sitting for 15-year terms. Membership would not be renewable, which is intended to safeguard the independence of the elected members.

European Commissioners are not elected, but a Commissioner for each member state is appointed by his or her government. In the UK this means that the European Commissioner is appointed by the Prime Minister. The President of the European Commission is chosen by a majority vote of European Commissioners, whilst the 14 vice Presidents are usually nominated by informal agreement without a vote. The President of the European Union is chosen by informal agreement between the heads of the states comprising the European Union, as are the appointments to the other senior positions created by the Lisbon Treaty, such as the EU Trade Commissioner.


Referendums require a direct vote of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by the electorate on a particular issue. Most Western nations have the machinery for referendums, but use them infrequently. Referendums are generally used to resolve issues relating to the constitution, territory and self-determination, and morality.

In Britain, there have been 11 referendums held on ‘constitutional’ issues, involving proposed shifts in power to a particular tier of government. Only two of these were nation-wide: the referendum on whether or not Britain should remain within the European Community and the AV referendum.

The 11 referendums:

  • 1973: Should Northern Ireland remain in the UK? (yes) (voters:Northern Irish)
  • 1975: Should the UK remain within the European Community? (yes) (voters:UK)
  • 1979: Should there be a Scottish Parliament? (no) (voters:Scots)
  • 1979: Should there be a Welsh Parliament? (no) (voters:Welsh)
  • 1997: Should there be a Scottish Parliament? Should it have tax-varying powers? (yes; yes) (voters:Scots)
  • 1997: Should there be a Welsh Assembly? (yes) (voters:Welsh)
  • 1998: Should there be a Greater London Authority with a London mayor? (yes) (voters:London)
  • 1998: Is there support for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland? (yes) (voters:Northern Irish to ratify the agreement; Irish Republic on amendments to Irish constitution to give effect to the Good Friday Agreement)
  • 2004: Should there be an elected regional assembly in North East England? (no) (voters:North East)
  • 2011: Should the alternative vote system be used instead of first past the post? (no)
  • 2011: Should the law making powers of the Welsh Assembly be extended to include all matters in the 20 subject area it has powers for? (yes)

Until recently, referendums have been rarely held, the key reason being the belief that Parliament, rather than the people, ought to make major political decisions. In practice, referendums have only been held because the governing political party has been split internally over an issue, although this may be changing.

The use of referendums is arguably becoming more frequent. The Localism Act 2011 includes provisions for Local Authorities to hold local referendums on issues of local concern, including council tax increases.

Alternative Voting




Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

- First report -Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

- Third report – Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill





Fixed-term Parliaments






Fixed-term Parliaments“, House of Commons Library

Briefing Paper on Fixed-term Parliaments, The Constitution Society



Constituency Boundaries




Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

- First report -Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

- Third report – Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill



Can the Boundary Commissions Help the Conservative Party? Constituency Size and Electoral Bias in the UK, Ron Johnston, Iain Mclean, Charles Pattie, David Rossiter in The Political Quarterly, December 2009.

Parliamentary Constituency Boundary Reviews and Electoral Bias: How Important Are Variations in Constituency Size?, Ron Johnston, Galina Borisyuk, Colin Rallings, Michael Thrasher in Parliamentary Affairs, December 2009.

Drawing a new Parliamentary Constituencies Map for the UK, Michel Balinski, Ron Johnston, Iain McLean and Peyton Young, with research assistance from Angela Cummine, The British Academy

Briefing Paper ‘Reduce and Equalise’ Constituency Boundaries, The Constitution Society

How strong is the case for having fewer MPs?, Democratic Audit Article by Lewis Baston & Stuart Wilks-Heeg

References and Links


Voting Systems in the UK House of Commons Library

UK Election Statistics 1918-2004 House of Commons Library

The Parliamentary Boundary Commissions House of Commons Library



Choosing an Electoral System British Academy; Simon Hix, Ron Johnston FBA and Iain McLean FBA

Changed Voting Changed Politics Independent Commission on Proportional Representation

The Experience of New Voting Systems in the United Kingdom since 1997 Ministry of Justice





John Curtice “The Electoral System” in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

Rodney Brazier Constitutional Reform: Reshaping the British Political System (third edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

Anthony King The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

Adrian Blau “Majoritarianism under Pressure: The Electoral and Party Systems” in Robert Hazell (ed) Constitutional Futures: Britain’s Constitution till 2020 (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2008)

Vernon Bogdanor The New British Constitution (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2009)

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