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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.

UK Parliamentary elections

Across the whole of the UK, to vote in a UK Parliamentary election a person must be 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.

In Scotland, the main differences for local and Scottish Parliament elections 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 and local elections: 

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

16- and 17-year-olds and qualifying foreign nationals will only be able to vote in the next scheduled local elections on 5 May 2022 and not in by-elections held before May 2022.

These changes do 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 nationals citizens legally resident in the UK may currently register to vote in all elections that use the local government franchise. However, the Government has recently proposed changes to legislation as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU.

Provisions included in the Elections Bill 2021-22 would restrict voting rights for EU citizens living in England and Northern Ireland who entered the UK after the end of the Implementation Period, 31 December 2020, to those from countries where a bilateral agreement has been agreed between the UK and individual member states. So far this covers Spain, Portugal, Poland and Luxembourg. 

EU citizens who were living in the UK prior to the end of the Implementation Period will maintain their local voting and candidacy rights in England and Northern Ireland, provided they retain lawful immigration status.

EU citizens living in Scotland and Wales will retain their existing voting rights as all legally resident foreign nationals can register to vote for local and devolved elections.


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