In some parts of the world, it seems like voting people into office is a never-ending process. As soon as one election ends, the next campaign ramps up and the campaigning goes on forever – the US is particularly egregious in these practices.
By contrast, other countries, such as France and the UK, limit the campaign window to just a few weeks, after which citizens may cast their ballots. And, unlike in the US, candidates are limited in how much they may advertise their candidacy, and by which means.
That’s all fine and well, but it doesn’t answer the question: how often do British citizens head to the polls?
|Types of elections:|
|General elections install representatives in the House of Commons|
|Devolved parliament and assembly elections address elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland|
|Local elections vote in members of local governments, except for mayors.|
|Mayoral elections are processes to vote for mayors|
|Police and crime commissioner elections seat the officials that will govern those bodies.|
Besides these five types of elections, each constituency may hold by-elections to fill a seat vacated between election cycles. In such instances, the same rules for campaigns apply, from declaring one’s candidacy to campaign time limits and advertising restrictions.
The type of election that concerns us today is local elections. How often do they take place? How long do elected officials serve? Are they universal – as in: does the whole country hold local elections at the same time? And how do local elections impact national elections?
These are the questions Superprof answers today.
Breaking Down Administrative Geography
For all of its longevity, the United Kingdom is curiously disjointed. There is no document, charter or law uniting the four countries. Contrast the UK’s non-uniform system of administration with the United States or the European Union, wherein each nation-state has sovereignty yet abides by a central government.
That’s not to say that there are no documents or proclamations that guide the UK. The Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta could be thought of as historically unifying documents but their impact is more civil than judicial or even legal.
Thus, with England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each having their own governing bodies with their own systems of administration and even different systems of geographic demarcation, the only way to understand administrative geography is to put each country in the spotlight.
- Scotland: local government is devolved (decentralised) and overseen by the Scottish Parliament. There are 32 unitary authorities called council areas, which may be further broken into area committees and community councils. These subdivisions of government have little to no political power; they serve to register and raise public concerns.
- Wales has the Senedd, a devolved legislature that forms the Welsh government. This body responds to 10 county boroughs, nine counties and three cities – for a total of 22 unitary authorities.
- The Good Friday Agreement established the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly; both are devolved government structures. The local government oversees 11 unitary authorities (districts).
In contrast to these three nations, England has no devolved government or national legislature. Instead, the country is divided into regions which, in turn, contain unitary authorities and counties that may be considered metropolitan or non-metropolitan, depending on whether it is mainly rural or urban.
London has a government structure for itself. Greater London is broken into the City of London and 32 boroughs, all of which are administered by the Greater London Authority, which includes the London Assembly, a directly-elected body.
Small town governments below the district level may be civil parishes, although this subdivision is not uniform throughout the country. In such parishes, one may find town councils or parish councils.
All of these subdivisions and the lack of uniform policy throughout the UK make it difficult to understand how and when local elections are held.
Understanding Local Elections
To make matters even more confusing, each parish, borough, county, region and country may use a different voting system. For instance, Scotland and Northern Ireland use a single transferable vote system that allows voters to rank the candidates in order of their preference.
By contrast, England and Wales use a system colloquially called first-past-the-post, wherein the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Most people are familiar with this majority-win voting system.
All of the London boroughs use a system called block voting; a system criticised for its lack of proportional representation.
The London Mayor is chosen by the supplementary vote system while assembly members are selected through the additional member system. Election watchers who routinely conduct election analysis in the UK often wonder about this convoluted system.
Couldn’t it be more standardised? Just wait, it gets more confusing.
In keeping with the lack of uniformity, local elections aren’t regimented. In any given year, some parts of the realm hold local elections while others don’t.
The general rule of thumb is a four-year cycle. Each year, one-third of the electorate is revisited, which calls for the elected officials in question to reassert their candidacy or be replaced by a challenger. During the fourth year of the cycle, that district does not hold any local elections.
Some districts elect their full complement of representatives every four years while others submit half of their governing bodies to re-election in each cycle.
Also, if a general election is scheduled for the same year as a local election, they are usually run at the same time, sparing the voters from a barrage of political adverts and having to return to the polls.
The process for tallying votes is equally scattered.
Local elections do not have a rule for when the counts should begin. Thus, despite polling stations closing and all voting having been completed, the election administrators – the returning officer may put off counting the votes until the next day. The next working day, that is.
Should they decide that putting off the count until the next business day is the best option, on election day, their sole responsibility is to ensure that the ballots are secured. When the counting does start, it cannot stop. Usually, the window for tallying votes is 10 hours, starting at 9:00 AM.
That’s often why larger constituencies have to wait for their election results. How long did you have to wait for the 2022 election results?
Who Administers Local Elections
Election agents essentially manage candidates’ campaigns. They keep track of all expenses and turn over such vital information to the returning officer.
Returning officers administer local elections.
They work with the election agents to ensure that candidates’ campaigns remain legal and aboveboard. If an agent wishes to contest an election, they must first ask for permission from the locale’s returning officer.
Election agents may further engage a polling agent and/or a counting agent to oversee the voting process and/or the vote count on the candidate’s behalf. Returning officers must approve of those persons, as well.
Throughout the United Kingdom, every unitary authority or district council engages a returning officer to spearhead their elections.
Registering to Vote
It’s no secret that people are growing disenchanted with their governments. Not just in the UK but around the world.
Admittedly, some countries do not give their voting public much choice. Though elections do take place, Russia, China, India and many other nations take less consideration of their citizens’ will than, say, South American and European countries. Election turnout is usually low in such nations unless the country in question mandates voting.
Of the 22 nations that have mandatory voting policies, only 11 enforce them, making their voter turnout substantially higher than countries where voting rights are treated more casually. Whether those voters actually give heavy thought to the choices they make or cast their ballots because they are required to is unknown.
And then, there are countries like the US and in the UK, whose citizens have the right to participate in the electoral process but a substantial portion of them choose not to.
Voter apathy is a growing problem around the world and it’s unknown whether it’s because people no longer believe in their systems of government or simply can’t be bothered to turn out on election day. Often, voters will head to the polls for major elections but not for local ones, perhaps believing that voting for the Prime Minister is more important than deciding who should lead their local government.
Compared to the US, registering to vote in the UK is simple.
As long as you meet the nationality requirements – citizen or permanent resident of legal age, you may register to vote, even if you’re away at school, or living and working abroad.
During August and December, electoral registration officers conduct a canvass to maintain voter rolls. If you happen to become eligible to vote outside of that narrow window, you may submit your application to vote individually at your local election registration office (or online).
Note that Northern Ireland does not conduct an annual canvass. Eligible persons may register to vote at any time during the year.
Once you are on the list of registered voters, you are free to exercise your right to vote in every election.
Regardless of how one feels about the government, it is every citizen’s duty to vote. After all, one can hardly complain about the government if they don’t do their bit, can they?
Now, join the discussion over the 2021 elections…
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