UK Politics

Vote 2011: A guide to polls taking place on 5 May

On 5 May, voters across the UK will go to the polls for a series of national and local elections as well as a UK-wide referendum.

Key questions about how the elections work are answered below.

WHEN ARE THE POLLS?

5 May. Votes are traditionally held on Thursday, but do not have to be. Elections cannot be held on weekends or public holidays.

WHAT ARE WE VOTING FOR?

Voters across the UK will be asked if they want to change the current first-past-the-post system for electing MPs in favour of the Alternative Vote. In Scotland, voters will elect 129 members of the Scottish Parliament. In Wales, voters will elect 60 members of the National Assembly of Wales. In Northern Ireland, voters will elect 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as 582 local councillors. In England, voters will elect about 9,300 councillors. There will also be mayoral elections in Middlesbrough, Mansfield, Leicester, Bedford and Torbay.

WHO CAN VOTE?

You must be registered to vote, be at least 18 years old on polling day, be British or be a Republic of Ireland or Commonwealth citizen living in the UK to vote in these elections and the referendum. People who meet these requirements and live in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are able to vote in elections there. Citizens of other EU member states resident in the UK can vote in English local authority elections and devolved elections but not in the referendum - unless they meet the stated qualifications.

WHO IS BARRED FROM VOTING?

The following are not allowed to vote in referendums, devolved elections and local elections: convicted prisoners; anybody found guilty of election corruption within the last five years; people who are subject to any "legal incapacity" which impairs their judgement.

HOW DO I REGISTER TO VOTE?

Most people register between September and November every year when the local electoral registration office delivers a registration form to your home. This is known as the "annual canvass". However, you can also register throughout the year as the register is updated every month between December and September. This is useful if you move home and need to register at your new address. You can check whether you are on the electoral roll by contacting the electoral services department at your local council. Their contact details are listed on the Electoral Commission's special website. Click here for details

HOW DO I VOTE?

Those registered to vote should be sent a polling card about a week before the election, naming your polling station. You should take the card with you to vote, although it is not compulsory. No other form of identification is required, except in Northern Ireland.

CAN I VOTE BY POST?

Yes. You can ask for a postal vote from the electoral services department at your local council - whom you should also contact if your polling card fails to arrive. If you apply for a postal vote and then decide you would like to vote in person after all, you must take the whole of your postal voting package to the polling station in order to vote. If you have applied to vote by post, you cannot vote in person at the polling station. However, on election day you can return your postal vote to the polling station, before 10pm, or to the returning officer at your local council (before they close), if you do not want to post it or it is too late to post it. See the Electoral Commission's guidelines for postal voting.

WHAT ABOUT PROXY VOTES?

You can only apply for a long-term proxy vote if you have a specific reason such as a disability or being overseas. To vote by proxy for just one election, you must have a reason, for example you will be on holiday or away due to work. If you are suddenly incapacitated or taken ill, you can apply to vote by proxy for medical reasons up until 5pm on polling day.

IF I LIVE OVERSEAS, CAN I STILL VOTE?

It depends. British citizens living abroad can vote in the UK-wide referendum but cannot vote in local elections or elections to devolved bodies such as the Scottish Parliament or National Assembly for Wales. They need to register as an "overseas voter" and this status will apply for 15 years after they were last registered as a UK voter. If someone was too young to be included on the electoral register when they left the UK, they can register to vote in the area their parent or guardian was last registered.

WHAT HELP IS THERE FOR DISABLED VOTERS?

To help blind and partially sighted voters, there has to be a "tactile device" in each polling station and there are rules on the size of print on ballot papers. The vast majority of polling stations are now more accessible for wheelchair users. Proxy ballots are allowed for those unable to vote because of disability. A doctor's note is required if the person with disabilities is applying for an indefinite proxy vote.

WHAT HAPPENS IF A VOTER IS ILLITERATE

There is no literacy qualification for voting: anyone who can not read or write can ask the polling officer at the polling station to mark their ballot, or take a companion to help them.

HOW MANY BALLOT PAPERS WILL YOU GET?

National elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and English council elections are being contested using different voting systems, meaning a different number of ballot forms.

Scotland and Wales: Voters will get two separate ballot papers for the national election. One to vote for a constituency-based candidate and another to elect a representative from a party list in different electoral regions.

Northern Ireland: Voters will get two ballot papers, one to elect candidates for the National Assembly election and one for candidates in the local election.

England: Most voters will get only one ballot paper for their council election although some will get others for parish and mayoral elections.

In addition, all voters across the UK will be given a separate ballot paper for the referendum on the electoral system, asking you whether you want to retain the existing system or change to a different one. You should place an X in the box beside your preferred choice.

IS VOTING COMPULSORY?

No. People cannot be forced to vote, nor is registration itself compulsory.

IS MY VOTE SECRET?

Yes. The ballot papers contain a serial number and it is possible, but illegal, to trace all the votes to the people who cast them. The number is there to stop electoral fraud.

WHO CAN STAND AS A CANDIDATE?

Candidates must be aged 18 or above and either be British, or citizens of other European Union or Commonwealth countries.

Those banned for standing in the elections include: bankrupts; civil servants; police officers; armed forces personnel; government-nominated directors of commercial companies; judges; members of parliament in non-Commonwealth nations; those convicted of electoral malpractice.

Here are the specific guidelines for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

In addition, those standing in English council elections must be on the electoral register of the council concerned or either have lived in or worked in the council area within the past year.

HOW CAN I SET UP A POLITICAL PARTY?

All political parties have to be registered with the Electoral Commission if they want their names to appear on ballot papers, a process which costs £150. The commission will need the names of three party officials and details of the party's financial structure. It can refuse to register a party if its name is confusingly similar to another party's or if the name is deemed offensive.

HOW MUCH CAN THE PARTIES/CANDIDATES SPEND?

Registered parties are restricted in their spending for the 365 days before an election. See the Electoral Commission guidelines. The electoral watchdog has published separate guidelines on how much candidates can spend in each of the elections.

In the referendum campaign, the official lead campaigners for either side - No to AV and Yes to Fairer Votes - are allowed to spend £5m each. Separately, the Conservatives are allowed to spend £5m while Labour and the Liberal Democrats are allowed to spend £4m each on promoting their respective positions in the referendum campaign.

WHERE DOES THEIR MONEY COME FROM?

Political parties, candidates and campaigners raise funds in a variety of ways from subscriptions and individual donations to local fetes and dinners. There are strict rules on donations: Those of more than £500 to a party or £50 to a candidate have to be from permissible donors - effectively banning overseas gifts. All donations of more than £7,500 to a party, lead campaigner in the referendum or £1,500 to a local branch, have to be publicly declared.

WHO ORGANISES THE ELECTION?

The top civil servant of the local authority is the returning officer for the elections in each constituency, with the day-to-day running of the poll left to the head of the council's electoral services department. The referendum on the voting system is being administered by the Electoral Commission, whose chair Jenny Watson is the chief counting officer.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO RUN AN ELECTION?

The cost of elections will vary in different parts of the UK. The cost of the voting system referendum has become a political issue. Those opposing change say the poll will cost about £90m to stage. Those who support change say holding the poll on the same day as other elections will save about £17m.

WHY ARE ELECTIONS HELD ON THURSDAYS?

They do not have to be - it is just a convention. One theory about its origins is that people were not paid until Fridays and so holding polls on Thursdays ensured they were not too drunk to vote. The Electoral Commission has recommended trials of weekend voting to boost turnout.

HOW DO THE VOTING SYSTEMS WORK?

Scottish and Welsh national elections use what is known as the additional member system.

The public get to cast one vote for a candidate standing in a constituency who is elected through the first-past-the-post system - where whoever gets the most votes wins.

People get to cast another vote to elect a representative from a party list - or an independent - from different electoral regions. These "top-up" seats ensure the total representation from each geographical area, including those members elected under first-past-the-post, corresponds as closely as possible with the share of the votes cast for each political party in the region.

Northern Irish national elections use a system known as single transferable vote. Voters are able to rank candidates in order of preference and seats are awarded in proportion to votes cast according to a set formula. Six candidates are elected from each constituency.

English council elections use a first-past-the-post system, where a single candidate getting the most votes is elected. In the referendum, whichever side gains the most votes wins.

HOW CAN I FIND OUT WHAT A CANDIDATE, PARTY OR CAMPAIGN BELIEVES?

Each party fielding candidates in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland elections should publish an election manifesto which is available from them or can be bought in the shops. Candidates will campaign locally and are entitled to one free mailing of an election leaflet to voters in their constituency.

Ahead of the referendum, the Electoral Commission will post an information booklet to every household explaining the question and the different electoral systems they must choose between. The official Yes and No campaigns have set up their own websites, are also entitled to one free mailshot each and will set out their views in a series of TV broadcasts.

Here is a guide to where the parties stand on the issue of changing the electoral system.

ARE THERE RULES FOR THE BBC'S COVERAGE?

Every part of the BBC has to follow election guidelines set down by the BBC Trust. They include advice on the "appropriate" level of coverage to give to each of the political parties and rules on balance and impartiality in relation to coverage of the referendum.

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