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All democratic countries have rules about who has the right to vote, known as the franchise, in their elections. This is usually based on nationality, age and residence.

In recent years the rules on who can vote in which election in the UK have diverged depending which bit of the UK you live in.

This briefing sets out:

  • who can vote in elections in the UK;
  • who is responsible for setting the different franchises;
  • information on the criteria, such as residence, nationality and legal incapacity to vote;
  • why Commonwealth and Irish citizens can vote in UK elections; and
  • information on EU citizen voting rights.


UK Parliamentary elections

Across the whole of the UK, to vote in a UK Parliamentary election you must:

  • be registered to vote in the constituency;
  • be of voting age – 18 years old on polling day;
  • be either a British, qualifying Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland; and
  • Not be subject to any legal incapacity to vote – Peers in the House of Lords, prisoners serving a prison sentence or having been convicted of committing certain electoral crimes.

Local elections in England and Northern Ireland

For local elections in England and Northern Ireland the rules are the same as they are for UK Parliamentary elections with two main exceptions. Peers in the House of Lords and EU citizens resident in the UK may also vote in local elections as long as they meet the age and residency requirements.

Local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales

In Scotland and Wales, you must be registered to vote in the area but there are now different rules on nationality and age, and the ban on some prisoners voting has been removed.

The main differences for local elections in Scotland are:

  • Registered 16- and 17-year-olds can vote;
  • All legally resident foreign nationals can also register to vote (not just EU nationals);
  • Convicted prisoners who are detained and serving a sentence of 12 months or less may now register to vote in local and Scottish Parliamentary elections.

In Wales the franchise has been changed for Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru elections to reduce the voting age to 16 and to allow legally resident foreign nationals to vote. These will apply to the Senedd Cymru elections due in May 2021.

The local government franchise in Wales is currently the same as for England, but the Senedd Cymru has passed a Bill to lower the voting age for local elections to 16. It will also legally resident foreign nationals to vote in local elections.

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill passed its final Senedd stage on 18 November 2020. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, the provisions on extending the franchise will come in to force two months later. These changes are expected to be in place in 2021. The next scheduled local council elections in Wales are in May 2022.

These changes will not cover police and crime commissioner elections in Wales as these elections are reserved. Voting age will remain at 18 for PCC elections in Wales and only registered British, qualifying Commonwealth and Irish citizens will be able to vote.

All convicted prisoners serving a prison term are still prohibited from voting in Senedd Cymru and Welsh local elections.

Non-British Citizens

The right of some non-British residents, namely Commonwealth and Irish citizens, to vote in UK elections is a result of historic ties with the UK.

Citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are resident in the UK are eligible to register for, and vote in, all elections in the UK.

Qualifying Commonwealth citizens who are resident in the UK are eligible to register for, and vote in, all elections in the UK.

A qualifying Commonwealth citizen is someone who is resident in the UK and who has leave to remain in the UK or does not require leave to remain. Electoral registration officers can check the immigration status of applicants from a Commonwealth nation.

EU citizens legally resident in the UK may register for the local government franchise and are able to vote in all elections that use the local government franchise. EU citizens currently retain their rights to vote in local elections even though the UK has left the EU.

Documents to download

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