Postal voting in the 2024 general election

18 June 2024

The deadline to apply for a postal vote for the 4 July 2024 general election has now passed. Over 10 million people are expected to vote by post this year. 

We’ve taken a look at how postal voting works and why some are suggesting it should be restricted, as well as reports that there have been delays in some voters receiving their ballots as polling day nears. 

Since February 2001, it has been possible for anyone in Great Britain to apply for a postal vote, allowing voters to cast their votes without having to attend a polling station in person. Before then, applicants had to give a reason why they needed a postal vote.

Most people still vote in person—in the 2017 election 18% of voters cast their votes via a postal vote, according to the Electoral Commission. This was an increase on the 2010 election, where 15.3% voted by post. In 2019, 8.2 million postal ballots were issued, and 6.7 million people successfully voted by post. 

This explainer is part of a series of ‘prebunking’ articles Full Fact is publishing ahead of the general election, exploring a range of topics which are likely to be of interest to voters. We’ll be updating these articles on a regular basis—this article was last updated on 2 July 2024 and the information in it is correct as of then.

Honesty in public debate matters

You can help us take action – and get our regular free email

What’s going on with postal votes?

Only those who applied for a postal vote before the deadline of Friday 14 June (in Northern Ireland) or Wednesday 19 June (in Great Britain) are able to vote by post in the general election this year. 

Over the past week there have been reports that some voters hadn’t yet received their postal ballots. The reports appear to have first emerged in Scotland, where some schools have already broken up for the summer and families may have planned to be on holiday. 

The Telegraph has also reported that some voters in more than 90 constituencies have experienced similar issues, including in England and Wales. 

It’s not clear what exactly has caused the reported delays. The Electoral Commission confirmed to Full Fact that elections teams within local authorities are responsible for printing and issuing postal votes to their own residents. 

Some local authorities have issued these in multiple batches of post, depending on when people applied to vote this way. Kevin Hollinrake, the minister of state for business and trade responsible for postal services, said the Royal Mail has a “resourcing issue”. A Royal Mail spokesperson told the Telegraph in a 1 July article: “we have no backlog of votes.” 

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission told us: “The vast majority of postal votes have been delivered, with tens of thousands landing on doorsteps over the weekend. We are not aware of any outstanding large-scale issues.

“If there are individual cases where a voter has not yet received their postal ballot pack, they should request a replacement from their local authority. Voters can post their postal ballot until Wednesday [3 July], and we know the Royal Mail has plans in place to ensure all postal votes get delivered in time to be counted.”

What do I do if I’ve not received my postal vote?

If you haven’t yet received your postal ballot, contact your local authority as each has its own protocols. The Herald newspaper in Scotland has contacted every local authority in Scotland, and has a list compiling what action has been recommended by councils who have replied. 

You can also request a replacement in person from your local authority, up to 5pm on polling day, provided you bring ID. You can enter your postcode on the Electoral Commission’s website to find the details of your local election team.

In Great Britain, postal ballots have to be with the relevant local authority elections team by close of polls—10pm—on election day, 4 July. If your postal vote arrived later than anticipated, and you are worried you don’t have enough time to return it by post, you can hand it in to your polling station on election day. If you are in the queue at the polling station by 10pm on election day, you can still hand in your postal vote. 

You may also be able to hand your postal vote to your local council office, but the Electoral Commission says you should contact your Electoral Registration Officer to check if this is possible. It is also possible to hand your postal vote to any polling station in your constituency, or directly to the (Acting) Returns officer at the elections office. 

If returning postal votes in person you must fill in a form and hand the votes to polling station staff, not place them in a ballot box. If this form is not completed, postal ballots handed in in person will not be counted

In Northern Ireland, you must return your postal vote to the Electoral Office in Belfast by 10pm on polling day. You can’t hand it in to a polling station.

If you hand in your postal ballot in person you can hand in your own postal vote and those of up to five other voters, no matter where you are in the UK.

However, it is an offence for a political campaigner to handle other people’s postal votes, unless it is for a close relative or someone they provide care for. This exemption does not apply in Northern Ireland

Deadlines for applying for a proxy vote—where someone votes in person on your behalf—have already passed throughout the UK, and emergency proxy votes are only available in limited circumstances, such as a medical emergency, and not in Northern Ireland. This list of circumstances on the Electoral Commission’s website does not include late or delayed postal vote packs. 

Can someone return a postal vote for me?

Yes, you can ask someone you trust to return a postal vote on your behalf if you are not able to, unless they are a political campaigner and you aren’t one of their close relatives. 

What evidence is there that voter fraud exists?

Postal votes are back in the news, with Reform UK claiming in their 'contract' that “postal voting has allowed electoral fraud”. To tackle this, Reform UK have pledged to stop postal voting, except for the elderly, disabled and “those who can’t leave their homes”.

While there is some evidence of fraud in previous elections, according to the Electoral Commission, the independent body that oversees elections in the UK, “in the past five years, there is no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud”.

In 2005 a judge ordered local elections in Birmingham to be re-run after upholding allegations of widespread postal voting fraud. 

In 2016 Sir Eric Pickles led an independent review into electoral fraud, prompted in part by the 2014 mayoral election in Tower Hamlets being declared void. The review made a number of recommendations, including restrictions on postal vote ‘harvesting’ by political activists. The rules on this were subsequently changed by the Elections Act 2022.

Electoral Commission figures show that of the 1,462 cases of alleged electoral fraud (not just postal voting fraud) reported to police between 2019 and 2023, 11 led to convictions and the police issued four cautions. Most cases either resulted in the police taking no further action or were “locally resolved” by the police “issuing words of advice”.

There were six allegations of personation (where someone pretends to be someone else to use their vote) relating to postal votes in 2023. Five saw no further action and one was locally resolved.

How is potential fraud detected?

The Electoral Commission says it works closely with police forces, prosecuting authorities, the Royal Mail and others to “prevent, detect, and take action against electoral fraud”. 

New rules around registering for a postal vote allow an individual to do so online by providing a picture of their signature. When checking postal votes, a returning officer or counting officer will check whether the signature on the ballot matches the one provided in the original application. 

The Electoral Commission provides guidance for officers on how to assess signatures, which includes three questions: whether the signatures are a similar shape, the pen-paths are similar, and the signatures similar in fluency.

Can someone identify my vote if I return a postal ballot?

When you receive a postal vote pack, it will include an envelope to return your vote. After voting, you should seal your ballot paper and no one will be able to identify how you voted until your vote is counted, as ballots are kept facing down.

Postal ballots are verified before the votes are counted

Verification is the process which confirms that postal votes have been submitted correctly, and the information on the ballot, like date of birth and signature, matches the registered information. The verification process also confirms that the number of votes received is the same as the number expected. 

When are postal votes counted?

There may be a misconception that postal votes are counted as soon as they are returned, but this is not the case. 

When postal votes are returned, they are checked to ensure the details are correct and then stored securely ahead of the count. Postal votes are counted after polls close, together with ballots cast in person. 

Will postal votes received after the deadline still be counted?

It is your responsibility to ensure that your postal vote is received by 10pm on polling day. If you aren’t able to post it in time, you can return it in person. 

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.