Memorandum by the Home Office
E. The Polling Timetable
Parliamentary Elections (General and by-elections)
5.1 There is no statutory requirement for a parliamentary
election to be held on a Thursday. Under Rule 1 of the parliamentary
rules, as set out in Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People
Act 1983, an election may not be held on a number of designated
days, at weekends, bank holidays or those appointed for public
thanksgiving or mourning. Such days are specified in the 1983
Act as dies-non, that is, non-working days, and are, therefore,
excluded for the purposes of the parliamentary election timetable.
Local Elections: Ordinary Day Elections
5.2 In every year the ordinary day for the election
of local authority councillors is the first Thursday in May as
required by section 37 of the 1983 Act.
5.3 The Home Secretary has the power to fix some
other day by order but is required to do so not later than 1 February
of the year preceding the year in which the order is to take effect.
To date, the Home Secretary has not exercised this power, though
he was invited to do so by OPCS to avoid a clash between the date
for ordinary elections and Census Day in 1991. A similar request
from ONS is currently being considered by the Home Secretary in
connection with the Census Day in 2001.
Local elections: by elections
5.4 The day on which a by-election is held to
fill a casual vacancy is determined in a principal area by the
returning officer for that area. For a by-election in a parish
or community this is the responsibility of the proper officer
for the district council in which the parish is situated (England)
or the county or county borough in which the community is situated
(Wales). Any weekday may be chosen as set out in rule 2 of the
relevant local elections rules. No information is held centrally
on the incidence of local by-elections held on a day other than
European Parliamentary Elections: General elections
5.5 Each general election of representatives
is held on a day appointed by order of the Secretary of State,
made by statutory instrument and laid before Parliament (paragraph
3(1) and (5) of Schedule 1 to the European Parliamentary Elections
Act 1978). The appointed day must, under article 9(1) of the Act
concerning the Election of Representatives of the European Parliament
by Direct Universal Suffrage 1976, fall within the same period
starting on a Thursday morning and ending on the following Sunday
in all Member States. Under article 10(1) the Council of the European
Community determined the first such period and, under article
10(2), subsequent elections are required to take place in the
corresponding period of the last year of the five year period
of office of representatives.
5.6 The Council of the European Community may
advance or delay this period by not more than one month. The period
in 1994 was 9 to 12 June. Accordingly, the next general election
will take place on a day appointed in the corresponding period
in 1999, namely 10-13 June, subject to the power of modification.
To date, a Thursday has always been chosen as polling day in the
European Parliamentary Elections: by-election
5.7 The polling day for a by-election is the
day appointed by order of the Secretary of State, made by statutory
instrument and laid before Parliament (paragraph 3(3) and (5)).
That day must not be later than six months after the occurrence
of either the notification of the vacancy by the European Parliament
under article 12(2) of the Act of 1976 or the declaration of the
vacancy by the Secretary of State (paragraph 3(3)).
5.8 Since 1979, there have only been four by-elections,
all of which were held on a Thursday. A by-election is pending
in the Yorkshire South constituency and will be held on Thursday
5.9 The historical reasons for choosing Thursday
as the normal day of polling are no longer clear. General elections
from 1918 until 1931 were held on various days of the week, but
Thursday has been the favoured day since 1935. Table 8 sets out
the days and dates of polling since 1918.
5.10 The trend towards choosing Thursdays for
elections continued on the abolition of Urban District Councils
and Rural District Councils under the Local Government Act 1972,
when the ordinary day for elections to District Councils was fixed
for the first Thursday in May. The day of the election for parish
councils was changed from Saturday to Thursday at the same time.
5.11 Though it is not unknown for local by-elections
to be held on another weekday, the last occasion that a parliamentary
by-election was held on another weekday was in 1978 at Hamilton
when it was held on a Wednesday. This was because of a possible
clash with Scotland's participation in the World Cup on the Thursday
which was seen as a possible discouragement to voters to turn
out to vote.
Table 8: UK General Election dates since 1918
||14 December |
||15 November |
||6 December |
||29 October |
||30 May |
||27 October |
||14 November |
||5 July |
||23 February |
||25 October |
||26 May |
||8 October |
||15 October |
||31 March |
||18 June |
||28 February |
||10 October |
||3 May* |
||9 June |
||11 June |
||9 April |
||1 May* |
*Combined parliamentary/local elections in England.
5.12 The hours of the poll at a parliamentary
or European Parliamentary election are 7 am to 10 pm (rule 1 of
the Parliamentary Elections Rules; that rule as substituted by
Schedule 1 to the European Regulations).
5.13 At a local government election the hours
of the poll are 8 am to 9 pm (rule 1 of the local elections rules).
Where, however, the poll at a local government election is taken
together with the poll at a parliamentary or European Parliamentary
election the hours of the poll are 7 am to 10 pm (paragraph 1
of Schedule 4 to the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules 1986
and to the Local Elections (Parishes and Communities) Rules 1986).
5.14 Differences in the hours for polling at
local and parliamentary or European Parliamentary elections are
the principal difference which an elector will identify between
the electoral rules at local and parliamentary elections. The
original reason for the shorter polling period at local elections
is not immediately apparent. The present timetables have however
applied since at least the beginning of this century when they
were consolidated into the Representation of the People Act 1918.
Issues commonly raised
That polling should take place on a weekend
5.15 Other EU and Commonwealth countries normally
vote at the weekend, although Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands
vote on a weekday. Most correspondence received by the Home Office
on this subject advocates weekend voting as likely to provide
better opportunity for electors to vote. Sunday voting is however
strongly opposed in correspondence we have received from the Churches
and individuals or organisations associated with the Churches.
Weekend polling would have consequences for the hire of polling
stations and recruitment of elections staff on polling day. Any
change would require primary legislation.
That polling should be spread over two days,
which might include one or more weekend days
5.16 The Plant Committee Report published by
the Labour Party in 1993 recommended that the number of hours
polling stations should remain open for parliamentary and EP elections
should remain at 15 but that this should be divided into 10 hours
on Saturday between 8 am and 6 pm and on Sunday continue from
8 am to 1 pm. Any change would require primary legislation.
That polling hours should be the same at all
5.17 We are not aware of any authoritative research
into the effect of the shorter polling hours on turnout at local
elections. The issue is not one which has raised any significant
correspondence from the public, but such correspondence as there
has been has focused on the case for extending the local election
timetable, rather than shortening that for parliamentary elections.
The Plant Committee report recommendations outlined at paragraph
5.16 above are also relevant here. Legislation would be required.
Whether selected polling stations might be opened
earlier during the campaign to allow voting to take place in advance
of polling day (so-called "early voting")
5.18 Early voting facilities are available in
many other countries to enable electors who will not be able to
vote in their area of residence on polling day to register a personal
vote in advance of polling day. There is no standard arrangement,
although most often polling stations are located in central premises,
usually town halls or a local authority office, for a period of
1-3 days immediately before polling day. Early polling is usually
open to any elector to make use of the facility, rather than only
to approved categories, eg the disabled.
5.19 Any proposals would need to have regard
to issues of the security of ballot boxes, control of electoral
abuse, and facilities for candidates to exercise their statutory
right to observe proceedings. Primary legislation would be required.