Q&A: Local elections 2013

Generic voting picture from 2004

A guide to the elections taking place in England and Wales in May 2013.

When are the polls?

Voting will take place from 7am to 10pm on 2 May. As is traditional in UK elections, they are being held on a Thursday again this year.

What are people voting for?

There will be elections for 34 local authorities in England - mostly county councils rather than the big cities. There will also be two mayoral elections, and also one local authority election in Anglesey. Here's the full list of where elections are being held.

Who is standing?

More than 2,300 seats are being contested in these elections. The Conservatives and Labour are putting up candidates in most seats, with 2,263 and 2,168 candidates respectively. The Lib Dems have 1,763 candidates. UKIP is fielding 1,745 candidates, three times as many as it did the last time these seats were fought in 2009, and the Greens have 893 candidates. Other parties standing include the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition's which is fighting 120 seats, the BNP, with 99 candidates and the English Democrats, with 38 candidates. There are around 900 independent candidates.

When are we expecting the results?

Only six of the county councils are counting votes overnight on Thursday - Lincolnshire, Dorset, Somerset, Essex, Gloucestershire and Hampshire - with results expected between 02:30 BST and 06:00 BST. All the other councils will start counting on Friday morning, with the bulk of the results due between 11:00 BST and 18:30 BST.

Where can I watch the results?

There will be full live text and video coverage of the results as they come in on the BBC News website, including the BBC's Vote 2013 programme presented by Huw Edwards. This will also be broadcast throughout the day on the News Channel from 08:30 BST to 18:00 BST, and on BBC 2 from 12:00 BST to 13:00 BST, from 14:00 BST to 15:00 BST and from 17:00 BST to 18:00 BST.

Who can vote?

You must be registered to vote, be at least 18 on polling day, be resident in Britain and be British or a Commonwealth or European Union citizen.

Who is barred from voting?

Convicted prisoners, anybody found guilty of election corruption within the past five years and people who are subject to any "legal incapacity" that impairs their judgement.

How do I vote?

If you are registered to vote you should receive a polling card any time up to the week of the elections, telling you where you should go to cast your vote on 2 May. You should take the card with you when you go to vote, although it is not compulsory. No other form of identity is required. If your polling card doesn't arrive, contact the electoral services department at your local council.

Can I vote by post?

Yes. But the deadline for asking for a postal vote from the electoral services department at your local council has now passed for these elections. 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 22:00 BST, 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 owing to work. The deadline to vote by proxy in these elections has now passed, but if you are suddenly incapacitated or taken ill, you can apply to vote by proxy for medical reasons up until 17:00 BST on polling day.

I'm away from home at university on 2 May, where do I vote?

As long as you are registered to vote in both places you can choose to vote at either your home address or your student address - or in both places if they are in different council areas.

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 cannot read or write can ask the polling officer at the polling station to mark their ballot, or have the candidate names read out, or take a companion to help them.

Is voting compulsory?

No. People cannot be forced to vote and registration is not 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.

Why don't I have a vote this year?

Not all councils hold elections at the same time. All councillors are elected for a term of four years, but the four-year cycle of elections is different for different councils. This year it is the turn of all the English county councils, who last had elections in 2009, and seven other authorities. Next year will see elections to all the London boroughs and some of the smaller district councils. There are also some councils who elect a third of councillors each year for three out of the four-year cycle.

Who can stand as a candidate?

Candidates must be aged 18 or over and either be British, or citizens of other European Union or Commonwealth countries. In addition, those standing in English council elections must be on the electoral register of the council concerned or must have lived in or worked in the council area within the past year. Those banned from standing in the elections include anyone employed by the local authority: bankrupts; and people in a variety of politically restricted jobs. The deadline has passed to register as a candidate for these elections.

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. 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. The deadline has passed to register a political party for these elections.

Who organises the election?

The top official 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.

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.

Are there rules for the BBC's coverage?

Every part of the corporation 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.

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