Guidance for (Acting) Returning Officers administering a UK Parliamentary election in Great Britain

Planning for postal vote opening

As part of your planning, you will need to identify the number of postal vote opening sessions that you think you will require and when these should be held, and make arrangements for these as necessary.

The number of postal vote opening sessions you will require will depend largely on the total number of postal voters that you have and your estimated turnout of postal voters. For more considerations see our guidance on planning for the delivery of key processes.

Your first opening session should be held within a couple of days of your first issue. Even if you have not received a high number of returned postal votes by then, you should still conduct a session at that time and take the opportunity to test your equipment and assess your workflows under real conditions.
 
After this first session you should gauge whether your estimate of the number of postal vote opening sessions required is sufficient or whether you will need to revise it.
 
Nothing prevents the opening of postal votes being carried out on a Saturday, Sunday or bank holiday, and indeed you may wish to consider doing so, particularly if it’s apparent you will need additional postal vote opening sessions.

You must give each candidate at least 48 hours’ notice, in writing, of the time and location of each opening session and of the maximum number of postal voting agents that may be appointed to attend the opening of postal votes.1

You should also plan for when you will open the packets of rejected postal votes delivered to you by hand at a polling station or council office.  Although candidates and agents have no right to object to a postal vote that has been rejected to you at a polling station or council office, opening as soon as practicable will ensure that the record of postal votes that were rejected when handed in is as up to date as possible. 

Who can attend the opening of postal votes?

The following people are entitled to attend the opening of postal votes:2  

  • you and your staff
  • candidates
  • election agents (or a sub-agent on their behalf, or any person appointed by a candidate to attend in the election agent's place)
  • postal voting agents
  • Commission representatives
  • accredited observers

The postal vote opening process should be transparent and all those entitled to attend should be able to clearly view the whole process. You could hand out copies of your layout plan to assist those present to follow what is happening, where and when.
 
You should provide anyone attending the postal vote opening with information on the processes you are going to follow. This can be a verbal explanation or through the provision of written guidance notes.
 
You should inform candidates, election agents and postal voting agents of the process to be followed should they wish to object to the rejection of a postal voting statement. More information on the process for managing this can be found in our guidance: checking personal identifiers.
 
Everyone attending a postal vote opening session, including your staff working at the session, must:

You must take proper precautions for preventing any person from seeing the votes made on the ballot papers. Throughout the opening sessions you must keep the ballot papers face down. There may be occasions when the front of a ballot paper becomes visible. It is an offence for anyone to:

  • attempt to find out the candidate(s) for whom any vote is given on any particular ballot paper
  • communicate any such information obtained at those proceedings

Equipment for opening of postal votes

You should consider what other equipment you will require at the opening of postal votes, and ensure that it is in place and tested in advance. This should include:

  • scanners
  • extension leads
  • printer
  • projector and screen
  • laptop
  • rejected stamp and pad
  • assorted stationery
Last updated: 22 February 2024