Electoral registration in the United Kingdom

Electoral registration in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom only people registered to vote are eligible to vote in Parliamentary and other elections.

Registration was introduced for all constituencies by the Reform Act 1832. From the United Kingdom general election, 1832 only people who had established a claim to a franchise and been registered could vote in elections.

Before 1832

Before 1832 only the Scottish counties had used a form of registration, with a meeting of potential electors to determine who was eligible to vote. As the electorate for these seats was extremely small (in 1788 it ranged between 16 for Clackmannanshire and 187 for Fife) the meeting was an important part of the political process in Scotland. The creation of new votes by the dominant interest of a county and the disqualification of known opponents often determined the outcome of elections.

In other constituencies people, who claimed to be qualified voters, presented themselves at the hustings to vote. The voter could be required to take an oath that he was qualified, if this was challenged, but the nature of the applicable qualification rules was sometimes disputed. In addition if a candidate, who had lost at the polls, thought this was due to people voting who should not have, then he could ask for a scrutiny (where the eligibility of voters was investigated). This could be an expensive and lengthy business in a large constituency.

In the English counties land tax lists were sometimes used as substitutes for an electoral register. However not all qualified voters paid land tax and much depended on the discretion of the returning officer (the High Sheriff of the county for a county constituency) as to who was permitted to vote. Some sheriffs and the Mayors or equivalent officers who acted as returning officer for boroughs, abused their authority for partisan purposes (which was another thing a defeated candidate could complain about in his petition to the House of Commons).

A candidate who remained dissatisfied after an election could petition the House of Commons and this sometimes resulted in the House 'discovering' that the correct franchise rules for a parliamentary borough were different from those understood previously.

In 1788 an attempt was made to introduce voter registration (under an Act of Parliament 28 Geo. III, c. 36). The scheme did not work well and was abandoned after a year. Seymour quotes a speech in Parliament which stated that only 100 voters were successfully registered in the whole county of Lancashire.

The introduction of a system of registration had the effect that disputes about eligibility would be resolved during the registration process, not during or after an election. Sir James Graham who devised the 1832 registration scheme hoped to reduce the expense of elections.

Registration process from 1832

The overseers of the poor in each parish, who already compiled information relevant to electoral qualifications in connection with local taxes, were given the additional task of compiling an electoral register.

In the counties, each year on 20th June, the overseers published a notice calling on prospective voters to make a claim and prove their eligibility. Once an elector did this he was listed each year without a fresh claim, unless there was a change of address or qualification or someone challenged his eligibility.

In the boroughs the rate-book (which the overseers already compiled), provided an automatic basis for an electoral register. However the voter had to act each year to stay on the register.

In all areas changes of address or qualification required a new claim.

Before the start of August the overseers in the counties compiled a draft register for the coming year. If the overseers had doubts or someone challenged the registration the objection was marked on the register. When there was an objection, notice was given to the claimant by 25th August. The ground of the objection did not have to be specified. The list of objections was published during the first two weeks of September.

The borough process was different. An elector who had paid his rates up to the start of the registration period did not need to make a claim. By 20th July the assesors and collectors of taxes had to report to the overseers who was in arrears. The overseers then compiled a draft electoral register of those they thought qualified to vote. Lists of people qualified to vote as freemen of the borough were prepared by the Town Clerk rather than the overseers. The lists of all prospective voters were published by the last day of July. Anyone else who claimed to have qualified or who objected was required to give notice to the overseers. Lists of claims and objections were prepared.

From this point the process was the same for all areas. Barristers (known as Revising Barristers) were appointed by senior judges to hold courts from mid September to the end of October. The barristers heard from the officials who had drawn up the lists, claimants and objectors so as to produce the final list of qualified electors. The procedure involved strict compliance with the law and even minor clerical errors invalidated a claim. A well qualified person could be put to the time and trouble of defending his vote by even an unmeritorious objection, because if he did not appear his claim was automatically rejected.

This complicated system proved difficult and expensive to operate. It encouraged the development of party organisation, as legally qualified agents were needed to defend the claims of party supporters and challenge the eligibility of opponents. However it remained basically unchanged until the twentieth century.

The dates on which electoral registers came into force were varied from time to time and sometimes differed in parts of the UK. It was 1 November in England and Wales from 1832-1842 and varied between that date and 1 January until 1915. The previous registration system broke down during the First World War. The registers were not revised after 1915. With so many voters serving in the armed forces or moving to take up war work the registers became very outdated.

The passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which introduced manhood suffrage for men at 21 and enfranchised some women from the age of 30, gave an opportunity for a new start on electoral registration. Responsibility for preparing electoral registers was given to local authorities. With the simpler qualifications to vote from 1918 (made even simpler a decade later when universal adult suffrage at the age of 21 was introduced) it was possible to replace the old Revising Barristers with a purely administrative process.


* "British Electoral Facts 1832-1987", compiled and edited by F.W.S. Craig (Parliamentary Research Services, 5th edition, 1989)
* "Electoral Reform in England and Wales", by Charles Seymour (David and Charles 1970, first printed 1915)
* "The House of Commons 1754-1790", by Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke (HMSO 1964)
* "The Parliaments of England" by Henry Stooks Smith (1st edition published in three volumes 1844-50), second edition edited (in one volume) by F.W.S. Craig (Political Reference Publications 1973)

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