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

Planning for the delivery of key processes

Your project plan should include details on how you will deliver the key processes, including nominations, postal vote opening, voting in polling stations, and verification and count. It should also include how you will meet your duty to ensure that the polling station is accessible to all voters. Our guidance on understanding the barriers to voting provides further information to support your planning

Establishing realistic and robust assumptions can assist you in planning for delivering these key processes. Sound assumptions can provide useful evidence in explaining your decisions and you should therefore document them. Sharing the assumptions with stakeholders at an early stage will also allow them to be tested by others for robustness before the detailed planning has been completed and will help build confidence in your plans. 

Your planning should include assumptions covering expected:

  • turnout on polling day
  • turnout of postal voters
  • number of candidates 
  • availability of staff
  • speed and capability of staff
  • timings for completing each process

All plans and assumptions should be kept under regular review. This will help inform a realistic assessment of whether you will be able to deliver the overall plan, and whether and when it may be necessary to implement contingency plans. In all cases your plan should be flexible enough to allow you to respond if any of your assumptions change, covering what contingency actions you will take in such circumstances, and you should communicate with stakeholders throughout your planning process and be prepared to explain the reasons for the decisions you are taking. For key decisions, you should provide your reasons to stakeholders in writing.


The expected turnout is a crucial factor in determining your planning and understanding what resources will be needed for most processes, in particular for polling stations and the verification and count. You should decide what the expected turnout is likely to be - taking into account the potential for late engagement and interest in the elections by which point scope for adjusting plans will be limited.

Your turnout estimate should be based on the assumption that, as a minimum, the turnout of voters will be not less than the turnout at the last equivalent polls. 

You should consider the impact of the changes to the postal vote application process and the impact of this on the volume of projected postal votes issued. 

You should also consider the patterns of return rates at previous polls and anything that might affect this. For example, televised Leaders’ debates at a general election could conceivably result in a late surge of registration and absent voting applications, altering the traditional pattern of when completed postal votes are returned, as well as have an impact on turnout. 

It is always safest to err on the side of caution when it comes to turnout as national and local developments can result in rapid changes to the actual turnout.

The resources you have available to conduct these processes, including numbers of staff and size of venue, will also be a relevant consideration to your planning. 

The number of parties and/or candidates

The number of parties and/or candidates standing at an election will also affect your planning considerations. For example, a large number of parties and/or candidates standing for election could mean that: 

  • ballot papers will be large and staff and voters may be slower handling them
  • more space will be required to accommodate the large ballot papers
  • the counting process for separating the votes into bundles for particular parties and/or candidates may be slower and take up more space
  • more space for candidates and agents may be required at the venues

In order to establish the likely number of parties and/or candidates you should:

  • make early contact with the political parties
  • monitor expressions of interest
  • monitor requests for nomination packs 

This information can then be taken into account when taking decisions on venues, count layout, necessary equipment and staffing requirements.

Staffing and timings

You should look at the number of staff and the processes used at previous elections and the number of ballot papers that were processed. An evaluation of the processes and staffing ratios, and when the various stages of the election process were completed, can then be used to inform decisions for these elections.

You should share these details and timings with stakeholders together with the assumptions that underpin them. 

Some stakeholders may hold expectations as to how quickly the processes can be completed which cannot be met in practice and this can lead to tension and frustration. To manage expectations, you should explain in some detail the processes involved and how long each stage is likely to take. For more on this, see our guidance on providing information on key election processes.

Last updated: 19 December 2023