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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. The right to vote in national and local elections may vary. Most countries restrict voting in national elections to their own citizens, but some allow foreign nationals to vote in local elections.

This briefing explains the franchise and who has the right to register to vote in elections in the UK. It also provides information on some of the registration criteria, such as residence, nationality and legal incapacity to vote. 

In recent years the rules on who can vote in which election in the UK have diverged depending which bit of the UK someone lives in. The right to vote in UK elections is summarised in the table below.

Table of voting rights

UK parliament elections

Across the whole of the UK, to vote in an election for the UK Parliament someone must:

  • be registered to vote in the constituency
  • be of voting age – 18 years old on polling day
  • be either a British citizen, a qualifying Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland
  • and not be subject to any ‘legal incapacity’ to vote – prisoners serving a sentence for a conviction cannot vote in UK parliamentary elections and neither can peers in the House of Lords.

The eligibility of Irish and Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK elections comes from the historic links between the UK and Ireland and between the UK and countries of the former British Empire.

Local elections

For local elections in England and Northern Ireland the rules are the same as they are for UK Parliament elections with two main exceptions. Members of the House of Lords and EU citizens resident in the UK can vote in local elections if they meet the age and residency requirements, but they cannot in UK Parliament elections.

The franchise for devolved elections in Scotland and Wales is the responsibility of the respective devolved administrations. Both have made changes to reduce the voting age and to allow foreign nationals to vote. These changes also apply to elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd Cymru.

Scotland

The main differences for Scottish Parliament elections and local elections in Scotland are:

  • Registered 16-year-olds 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 12months or less may now register to vote in local and Scottish Parliament elections.

Wales

In Wales the franchise has also been changed for elections to the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru and local elections: 

  • Registered 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds can vote
  • All legally resident foreign nationals can also register to vote for local elections and Senedd Cymru elections (not just EU nationals).

Decisions on police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections are reserved to the UK Government. The voting age will remain 18 for PCC elections in Wales and only registered British citizens and 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.

EU citizens’ voting rights

Citizens of an EU country living in another EU country have the right to vote in local elections. While the UK was a member of the EU this right applied to EU citizens resident in the the UK.

Following the UK’s exit from the EU changes have been made to the right to vote in local elections in England and Northern Ireland. After local elections in England in May 2024, these will change depending on when a person moved to the UK and from which country. This will include PCC elections in Wales. These changes will not affect the voting rights for EU and other foreign nationals in Scotland and Wales.


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