Elections and electoral registration

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who have had problems registering to vote or voting in an election and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

I'm not on the electoral register - can the Ombudsman sort this out for me?

No. If the Electoral Registration Officer at your local council has refused to add you to the register, or says that you can only vote in some elections, you can write to them appealing against the decision, and take your case to the county court if necessary. If you thought you were on the register, and find that you are not, you will need to contact your local Electoral Registration Officer about this.

Can I complain because staff at the polling station refused to give me a ballot paper?

No. The law does not allow the Ombudsman to investigate complaints about the conduct of an election. This is a matter you would need to raise with the Returning Officer. Returning Officers act in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the council, so we cannot investigate what they, or the council officers working on their behalf, do. This includes complaints about nomination papers, tellers, the issuing of ballot papers, and the arrangements for the count.

My postal vote didn't arrive in time and I lost the chance to vote. Is this something the Ombudsman can investigate?

No, because this relates to the conduct of an election, which is the responsibility of the Returning Officer, rather than an administrative function of the council. It is worth remembering that:

  • the period in which postal votes can be issued is quite short, so electors living abroad or who will be away around polling day are usually advised to appoint a proxy;
  • the law allows an elector to contact the Returning Officer to request a replacement if the ballot paper and paperwork has not arrived four days before the election; and
  • the law also allows the presiding officer at a polling station to accept a postal vote, provided it is sealed in the correct envelope and accompanied by the relevant paperwork.  

The council has decided to move the polling station. How can I challenge that decision?

The law provides for the Electoral Commission to consider this, if representation is made by more than 30 electors in the constituency.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mr X complained a council failed to answer his complaint about the actions of an electoral agent at a polling station, which had implications for criminal and civil court cases. We could not investigate the matter because it was about the conduct of elections at polling stations, which are not a council function but personal to the Returning officer, so fall outside our legal powers.
Mr B complained the council recorded his nationality as British – rather than English – on the electoral register. He says this is a form of discrimination. The council explained the law provides for ‘British Citizens’ to vote in UK elections. While Mr B clearly feels strongly about the matter, we did not investigate his complaint because there was no evidence it had caused him significant personal injustice.
Ms F complained the council did not add her to the Electoral Register. We investigated as we found in this case Ms F could not appeal to the Electoral Registration Officer. We found no fault by the council.

Other sources of information

The Electoral Commission has a section of frequently asked questions about elections and electoral registration on its website www.aboutmyvote.co.uk. You can also find contact details for your local elections office on this website, and download electoral registration and postal voting application forms.

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

January 2023

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