‘First Class the Post’: The Rise of Postal Voting

Since February 2001 it has been possible to get a postal vote on demand in Great Britain; voters no longer have to state a reason for applying for an absent vote or to obtain attestation of illness (etc.) from a medical practitioner or employer. As a result, the number of postal votes counted at general elections rose from around three-quarters of a million before the change to over 5¾ million by 2010.

Postal votes at UK General Elections: 1945 to 2010

Postal Votes Time Series
Sources: Electoral Commission; C, Rallings & M, Thrasher, British Electoral Facts 1832-2006

2010 general election

Across the UK as a whole in the 2010 General Election 7.0 million postal votes were issued, 83% of postal vote envelopes were returned, and the number included in the final count was 80% of the number issued.

In 2010, 18.8%, just under 1 in 5, of all valid votes at the General Election were postal ballots. This percentage varies by area. The GB constituency with the highest proportion of postal votes counted was 53% in Houghton and Sunderland South, and the lowest was 8.3% in Lewisham West and Penge.

Postal votes in the 2010 General Election Constituencies in Great Britain with the highest and lowest % postal votes

 Postal Votes by Constituency
Source: Electoral Commission

European Parliament elections

United Kingdom

In the UK postal votes are available for European Parliament elections in the same way as for those to other bodies. Electoral Commission data show in the 2009 European Parliament elections 6.3 million postal votes were issued in the UK in respect of 14.2% of the electorate. 4.1 million (64%) of postal vote envelopes were returned and after verification 3.9 million postal ballots were included in the final count. This represented 25% of all valid votes.

Other EU Countries

There is no EU-wide rules on postal voting. The rules for these elections are largely determined by individual nation states. There are general EU requirements for all EU citizens to be eligible to vote and stand as candidates wherever they live and for the voting system to be proportional (list or STV).

Generally, postal voting in other EU countries is not as widely available as in the UK. In many countries, postal voting is restricted to those voting from abroad or who cannot attend a polling station in person, for example those in hospital or on military service.

According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, in the 2014 elections, in half (14) of Member States postal voting is available for those voting from abroad. In 10 countries postal voting is not available but provision is made for voters to cast their votes at embassies overseas and/or by proxy. In 4 countries, Czech Republic, Ireland, Malta and Slovakia, there is no provision to vote from abroad.

Author: Richard Cracknell