British democracy: who has a voice?

8 February 2010

Did you know that Britain's entire prison population - over 90,000 people - does not have the right to vote?

Britain has a blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections. The European Court on Human Rights has ruled that the UK position violates Protocol 1, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to vote.

The Barred From Voting campaign has demanded a change in the law, this week warning that the government faced being sued by prisoners if they were again prevented from voting. Although the government is consulting on measures, it appears unlikely that new legislation will be introduced before the general election.

The government's view, set out in a letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, is that the right to vote is part of the contract between the individual and the state and prisoners have broken that contract.

Full Fact decided to look at how the contract works for other groups.

Under 18s

Cannot vote in parliamentary elections. Gordon Brown last week expressed his personal support for votes at 16 but there is no prospect of a change in the law in time for the 2010 election.


Students can choose whether to vote at home or at their term-time address. As a result, the 'student vote' can be very significant in small university towns such as Cambridge.


The homeless and those in temporary accommodation are eligible to vote. Homeless people need to be able to show a local connection to register - such as a previous address. The Electoral Commission have recently launched an awareness raising campaign about this.

Commonwealth citizens

Commonwealth citizens from countries as diverse as Australia and Mozambique can vote in UK parliamentary elections if they are resident in the UK and have been granted leave to remain. This covers citizens of British Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories.

EU citizens

Citizens of the EU cannot vote in UK parliamentary elections. Those resident in the UK can however vote in European elections and local elections.

Overseas voters

Ex-pats can vote as long as they were on the electoral register within the last 15 years. This will usually be done by postal vote.

Armed Forces

Service personnel overseas can either register for a postal or a proxy vote. Given that postal votes only get sent out about a week before polling day, service personnel can find it difficult to get their votes returned in time, especially if they are away from base on combat duty. Proxy votes allow you to nominate someone to vote on your behalf.

The electorate, turnout and voting

Less than half of the UK population had a say in deciding the last general election. Of our 60 million population, in the 2005 count the registered electorate was 44.2 million. Of these just 27.1 million people cast a vote - a turnout figure of 61%.

Detailed analysis by Rallings and Thrasher of voting patterns in 2005 showed that 15% of all votes were sent in by post. Just under 100,000 votes were cast by proxy (0.2% of the total).

The analysis also showed that turnout was higher among those who chose a postal vote than people who had to visit a polling station.

A total of 85,038 ballot papers were spoilt. This is less than 1 in every 300 votes counted.

Are you registered?

Contact your local electoral registration office, based at the local council, to find out! See

Full Fact fights bad information

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