Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to Minutes of Evidence (Volume II)


Memorandum by the Home Office

E. The Polling Timetable

Current Legislation

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 a Thursday.

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 United Kingdom.

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 7 May.

Thursday polling

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

1918 Saturday 14 December
1922 Wednesday 15 November
1923 Thursday 6 December
1924 Wednesday 29 October
1929 Thursday 30 May
1931 Tuesday 27 October
1935 Thursday 14 November
1945 Thursday 5 July
1950 Thursday 23 February
1951 Thursday 25 October
1955 Thursday 26 May
1959 Thursday 8 October
1964 Thursday 15 October
1966 Thursday 31 March
1970 Thursday 18 June
1974 Thursday 28 February
1974 Thursday 10 October
1979 Thursday 3 May*
1983 Thursday 9 June
1987 Thursday 11 June
1992 Thursday 9 April
1997 Thursday 1 May*

*Combined parliamentary/local elections in England.

Polling hours

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 day

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 elections

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.

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Prepared 1 October 1998