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What is absent voting?

If a voter cannot get to the polling station on the day of the election, they can apply for an absent vote. There are two types of absent vote:

  • Postal votes: where you fill in your ballot in advance and send it back to be counted
  • Proxy votes: where you ask someone to vote on your behalf on polling day

The rules on who can apply for an absent vote vary depending where in the UK the voter lives, and on which type of election they are trying to vote in.

Absent votes can be requested at any time but there are deadlines for setting up absent voting arrangements for a specific election. Again, these vary depending where in the UK a voter lives.

The Electoral Commission I am a voter website provides current information for all parts of the UK, including application forms.

How popular is absent voting?

At the 2019 General Election, 17.2% of voters across the UK were issued with a postal ballot and 0.6% appointed a proxy.

Turnout tends to be higher for postal voters than those who vote at polling stations. This means that 21.0% of all valid votes at the 2019 General Election were postal votes. Before postal voting rules were changed in 2001, this was around 2%. The changes in 2001 allowed voters in Great Britain to request a postal vote for any reason, known as postal voting on demand. Postal voting on demand is not available in Northern Ireland.

Elections Act 2022

The Elections Act 2022 has made some changes to the arrangements for absent voting. Changes to the rules about absent voting only apply to certain elections. These are UK Parliament elections, local elections in England, and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. 

Voters in Great Britain can apply for absent votes online for reserved elections from 31 October 2023 using the Apply for a postal vote service or the Apply for a proxy vote hosted on the Gov.UK website. Until now applications had to be made using a printed form. For elections in Northern Ireland and for devolved elections in Scotland and Wales applications must still be made in writing.

The application process will change so voters will be required to provide a national insurance number, whether applying online or in hard copy. There will be additional ways for people without a national insurance number to apply. This mirrors the existing application process for registering to vote.

The changes will require voters in Great Britain to reapply for postal voting arrangements every three years for UK Parliament elections and other reserved elections in England and Wales.

Other changes to absent votes will take effect for a UK Parliament election or recall petition from 12 December 2023 and for other reserved elections in England and Wales from 2 May 2024. A person will only be able to act as a proxy for up to four other voters in reserved elections in Great Britain. Of these four only two can be ‘domestic’ voters. The other two may be overseas or service electors.

It will be an offence for a campaigner to handle someone’s postal vote or postal vote documents. There will also be a limit of five on the number of postal vote packs that anyone can hand in to a polling station in Great Britain. If handing in someone else’s postal ballot the person handing in will be required to fill in a declaration. Failure to make the declaration as required or an attempt by a campaigner to hand in a postal vote will lead to the ballots being rejected and they cannot be included in the count. Northern Ireland voters cannot hand in postal votes at polling stations or council offices.

Absent voting arrangements for devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, for Senedd Cymru, Scottish Parliament, and local council elections will not change.

Documents to download

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