Disclosure and Disclaimer: Although I am politically active and an active member of the Scottish Green party, this post is intended to be objective and politically neutral. This is a guide on how to vote, not a blog to try to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.
For the third time in four years, the UK is preparing to go to the polls to elect a Parliament to the House of Commons. The UK would not normally have been expected to be in this position as for the last several years there has been a law in place called the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) which was supposed to have fixed parliamentary terms at five years rather than the older system of leaving election timing to the whim of the Prime Minister of the day who could call or delay elections (within some limits) according to when they felt particularly advantaged or disadvantaged in the polls.
But Brexit, as with so much in British politics, has changed everything and the current logjam caused by the minority government inherited by Boris Johnson has meant that even his reforms to the Brexit Deal could not be passed through Parliament (and nor could any other permutation of result).
And so, just two years after the 2017 election that resulted in that minority Government, the UK is going back to the polls to see what happens this time.
As stated in the disclaimer above, the purpose of this blog post isn’t to convince you to vote in a particular way – that will be for another time and is already being done by others. This is instead a post which acknowledges that a great many people have never voted in a UK General Election before and this may be their first vote of any kind. If you are aged 20 or under, you will likely have been too young to vote in the previous election and there will be some who were eligible to vote but haven’t ever done so before and maybe there’s an issue in this election which has proved to be particularly important to you. It may also be the case that you were not eligible to vote in previous elections but have just taken on British citizenship or suchlike and nor are eligible to vote. If any of these things are the case and you’d like to learn more about the voting process then this blog is for you and is a continuation of my long running series which has also covered the 2015 UK General Elections, the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections and the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections. and the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections.
This guide is also unashamedly Scotland focused because that’s where I am and where the centre of my sphere of political interest lies but the basic principles of this guide will apply elsewhere in the UK (although the balance of candidates and thus voting considerations may vary)
Step One:- Registering to vote
You cannot vote in this election unless you are registered to vote. It is also important to note that there is a deadline for registrations. You cannot just turn up at the Polling Place and register “on the day” as is possible in some places like the USA.
The deadline for this election is the 26th of November which means that as of the posting of this article, you don’t have long.
You can register to vote HERE.
In order to be eligible to register you must meet several criteria, the most important of which is that you must be 16 years old (or 14 or over in Scotland), and you must be a UK citizen or be an Irish, EU or Commonwealth citizen with a permanent address in the UK.
Note that this is the criteria for REGISTERING to vote and this registration will be valid in all elections in the UK until your circumstances (such as your address) change but it is not the criteria to be able to vote in THIS election.
The UK general election has a more restricted suffrage than other elections such as local elections and is only open to people who are 18 (or will be 18 on the day of the vote) and are UK, Irish citizens or have a qualifying Commonwealth citizenship. People aged 16 and 17 and people who are EU citizens cannot vote in the UK general election. The full list of criteria for voting eligibility can be found here.
Step Two:- Deciding how to vote
The majority of voters do so in person at their designated polling place. Once you have registered, you will be sent a polling card with the information on it telling you where this polling place is and which polling station within it you should go to.
You do not need to bring this card with you when you vote but it can help to speed up the process, particularly at busy times. The agents at the polling place will be able to help direct you to the right place.
If you are unable or don’t want to go to the polling place in person then there are other options. This can be for any or no reason but an election in December may well be highly subject to the weather so some vulnerable people may wish to take precautions against this. People who are likely to be out of the country on the day of the vote may also be in this block.
Two basic options are available. First, there is a postal vote where your ballot paper is sent to you by post and you can either return it by post or take it to your polling place on voting day. To get a postal ballot you must register for one and, again, the deadline is tight. This application must be received by 5pm on November 26th. More information on postal votes including registration can be found here.
The second option is a proxy vote where you nominate a trusted person to go to the polling place in your place and to vote for you. This may be an option for people who are travelling or are overseas as it may be difficult to get a postal ballot out to you and then returned in time. The deadline for registering for a proxy vote is 5pm on the 4th of December. More information on proxy voting can be found here.
Step Three:- Casting your vote
The particular form of voting in the UK General Election is known as “First Past the Post” or FPTP. Of the various election methods used in Scotland’s various elections, this voting method is both the easiest to explain how to fill out a ballot and the easiest to count and come to a result. For this election, Scotland is split into 59 constituencies as shown below.
In each of these constituencies several candidates will be vying for your vote. Despite the attention given to the political parties both in the media and within government, technically you will not be voting for a party on your ballot sheet. You will be voting for a person to represent your constituency in the House of Commons and that person may or may not be a member of a party. In practice, the parties are established parts of UK politics and their manifestos as well as the likelihood of their candidate in your constituency loyally following that manifesto (perhaps especially if that manifesto contradicts local political priorities) may well play a role in your decision on who to vote for.
As stated in the opening, it is not the purpose of this article to give a view on which party to vote for but I will write another before election day giving a review of the various party manifestos.
When you go to cast your vote, either at the polling station or via a postal vote, you will be presented with a ballot paper which looks something like the one below.
The candidates will be shown in alphabetical order according to surname and below their name will be shown their registered address and either the name of the party to which their belong (if any) or a slogan chosen by the party which represents something about them. The party’s logo may be shown to the right.
You may cast your vote by placing an X in the box beside your preferred candidate. Do not make any other mark on the paper and do not rank candidates in preference order as you may have done in the council elections as this will invalidate your vote. In every election there are always stories of creatively marked ballot papers being accepted or rejected for various reasons and sometimes this is done by people as a form of protest when they want to be counted as a voter rather than an apathetic abstainer but do not wish to vote for any of the candidates in their area. When done deliberately knowing that this will result in the ballot being rejected, this is known as a spoiled vote. Your polling card will indicate when your polling station is open – this is likely to be between 0700 and 2200 (7am and 10pm). The polls close strictly at 10pm and while you may be admitted after this if you are already queuing to vote (dependent on the discretion of the staff at the station) you really should try to vote before the 10pm deadline.
Once done, put your ballot in the box near your polling station (or post it to the address indicated on your postal ballot) and you’re done.
Step Four:- Counting the Votes and Determining the Winners
Under the First Past the Post voting system, it doesn’t really matter how the votes are cast outside your own constituency. Each seat is determined by a race between the candidates within. Once the votes are cast and the polls close, the ballot boxes will be gathered somewhere in the local area, opened and counted.
Under FPTP, the winner of the constituency seat is the person who gets more votes than any other candidate in that constituency. They do not need to win more than 50% of the total number of votes. This does mean that if a seat is closely contested then the winner may end up winning based on a minority of votes. If, for example, there were four very evenly popular candidates then the winner may have just a little bit more than 25% of the overall vote. In recent UK electoral history, the lowest percentage of votes which resulted in an electoral victory was set by Alasdair McDonnell who won the Belfast South seat in 2015 with 24.5% of the overall vote. The difference in votes between the winner and the person who comes second is known as their “majority” which can be many thousands of votes in “safe” seats with little prospect of challenge or could be as low as single digits for highly contested areas.
Once all of the constituencies have reported their results (usually around between 0200 and 0600 on the Friday after the vote but possibly moving out to later that day in the cases of remote areas like the Highlands and Islands) then the wrangling between the parties can begin. If a single party wins a majority of the constituencies then it will usually be expected to be able to form a government with their leader becoming the Prime Minister. If not, then they can either look to another party to join with in a formal alliance (a Coalition) in which the smaller party takes formal positions within the government (as was the case with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015) or they may try to form a minority government where they either look for a promise of support from smaller parties for key votes like the annual budget but don’t offer them formal positions in government (this is known as a “Supply and Confidence Arrangement”) or perhaps just try to government without that promise and try not to do anything that results in Parliament turning against them.
This allocation of seats means that parties can win a large number of seats based on a relatively small percentage of the overall vote. Since WWII, there hasn’t been a single UK general election where the winning party has received more than 50% of the overall popular vote. The limits of FPTP also mean that parties can win seats by contesting individual constituencies and winning there despite having a relatively low percentage of UK-wide support. This is why parties such as the Green Party of England and Wales have had one MP in the last few parliaments (Caroline Lucas who stands in Brighton Pavilion) and why regional/national/autonomist parties like the SNP can win a high percentage of seats (35 out of 650) despite a small percentage of the UK vote (about 5% across the UK) as they do not stand candidates outside of Scotland.
Conversely, under FPTP, it is possible for parties to gain a reasonable percentage across the UK but fail to win any single seat. Across the whole of the UK, the UK Independence Party won around half as many votes as the SNP did and, indeed, slightly more votes than the Greens of England and Wales did, but because they contests most of the seats across the UK and did not have concentrations of votes anywhere within them they were unable to win a single seat.
This is the fundamental problem with First Past the Post. It is easy to vote in and easy to count but of all of the election systems in use at the moment, it is the one which produces the least proportional results across the country. Unfortunately, as can be seen in my other voting guides, voting systems which produce more proportional results across the country come with trade-offs such as being more difficult to vote in (you may need to rank candidates by preference or you may have multiple ballots to filling in), more difficult to count (counting up the relative weights of preferences is harder than counting the number of X’s for each candidate) or may result in larger constituencies represented by multiple people or by people who have a less strong link to your local area therefore find it harder to represent you and your issues.
There will be a time to discuss changes to the voting system in the UK but that, again, is for another time. Until then, this is the system we have and this has been your guide on how to vote in the 2019 UK general election.