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

Planning for a UK Parliamentary election

Planning for a UK Parliamentary election

A UK Parliamentary election is a significant event which brings with it its own particular challenges. Your work to deliver a well-run poll will come under considerable scrutiny – from voters, candidates and political parties, and the media including through social media. 
This section seeks to highlight some of the particular aspects of context relevant to UK Parliamentary elections which you should ensure underpin all aspects of your planning.

Nature of a UK Parliamentary election

The election will likely be hard-fought, with many close contests in constituencies across Great Britain. The evolving political landscape could mean that even in places where there have traditionally been large majorities this may no longer be the case. The focus and circumstances could be different from anything experienced in your area before. 

There may be a significant number of new or less experienced political parties, candidates and agents who are unfamiliar with the practices and processes of an election and who will need your support to be able to participate effectively. 

Particularly given the possibility of close and hard-fought contests, you should be prepared for the integrity of this election to be scrutinised. Allegations and cases of electoral fraud will not only have a negative impact on the confidence of electors and campaigners, but they may also have a significant impact on your capacity to manage the election process effectively. It is therefore crucial that you put in place detailed and robust plans for monitoring and maintaining the integrity of the election in your area. You should work closely with the local police, ensuring you have in place good lines of communication for referring any allegations. For more information see our guidance on Maintaining the integrity of the election.

Scale and turnout

The level of preparatory work you will be able to undertake ahead of an election will vary depending on various factors, including whether it is a scheduled election or a by-election, the number of constituencies you are responsible for, and the level of combination of polls, if any. 

Many aspects of planning for the election will need to reflect assumptions as to the likely turnout for the poll. Establishing such assumptions at an early stage in the planning is of key importance as the scope for adjusting plans is limited at a later stage in the process.

The level of interest in a UK Parliamentary election is likely to be significant. You should plan for the possibility of a high turnout and, as a minimum, you should assume that the turnout will be not less than the turnout at the last equivalent polls.

As the poll becomes closer, the context will continue to evolve as the campaigns pick up pace. You will need to be prepared to react to events both within your constituency and more broadly which could have an impact on the effective delivery of the poll. This will include having robust contingency plans in place that you can turn to where required. If, for example, there are televised Leaders’ debates, these could conceivably result in a late surge of registration and absent voting applications, as well as having an impact on turnout and are likely to alter the traditional pattern of when completed postal votes are returned.

It is vital that appropriate provision of polling stations is made, with the numbers of stations and the numbers of staff within them sufficient to deal with the number of electors allocated to them. Although the legislation allows any voters in a queue at their polling station at 10pm to vote,1 the need to ensure that voters do not face undue delays in voting and can receive a high-quality service remains.

There is likely to be a media focus on the count and declaration of results and it will be important to manage expectations, not only of the media but of all with an interest in the results, by consulting on your proposed approach and subsequently communicating clearly what you expect to deliver and by when.

Last updated: 19 December 2023