Postal voting

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Concept.png Postal voting Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
BoJo Begging Letter.jpg
Boris Johnson's begging letter was inserted in millions of postal voting packs at the 2019 General Election[1]

Postal voting is voting in an election whereby ballot papers are distributed to electors or returned by post, in contrast to electors voting in person at a polling station or electronically via an electronic voting system. Historically, postal votes must be distributed and placed in return mail before the scheduled election day, it is sometimes referred to as a form of early voting. It can also be used as an absentee ballot. However, in recent times the model in the US has morphed, in municipalities that use absentee voting exclusively, to be one of ballots being mailed out to voters, but the return method taking on alternatives of mail-in voting[2] or dropping off the ballot in person via secure drop boxes and/or polling stations.[3]

Postal voting refers only to the means by which the ballots are submitted, not to the method by which the votes are counted. Election officials may count the votes by processing the mailed-in ballots through electronic voting machines, or may count the votes manually.

On demand in Britain

Since 2001, it has been possible to obtain a postal vote on demand for British elections, the voter no longer having to state a reason for applying as they did for elections before 2001. This has created an understandable increase in the numbers of postal votes at elections in the 21st century. The amount of postal votes has risen from around three-quarters of a million before the change to nearly 6 million by the end of the last decade.

In the UK/2017 General Election, the total number of postal votes issued was 8.4 million, which represented 18.0% of all electors. This compares with 16.4% in 2015 and 15.3% in 2010. Data revealed by Lord Ashcroft place the UK/General election/2019 postal vote at 38%, the number seemingly having more than doubled in two years.[4]

Procedure for postal voting

Registered voters who wish to vote by post must submit an additional application form to the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) at their local authority (or to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland if in Northern Ireland) stating whether they want their ballot paper to be sent for one single election, all elections until a specified date or indefinitely. They must also submit their date of birth, and signature specimen on the form (or apply for a grant of a signature waiver due to a disability or inability to read or write[5]). In addition, if a person eligible to vote in the United Kingdom is chosen by another voter to be his/her proxy, the proxy can apply to vote by post. To receive a postal vote for an election, the postal vote application must have been received by the Electoral Registration Officer by 5pm eleven working days before polling day.

Returning officers issue and despatch postal ballot packs at 5pm on the eleventh working day before polling day at the earliest. Issue of postal ballots is not open to the scrutiny of candidates and their agents; by law, only the returning officers, their staff, representatives of the Electoral Commission and observers accredited by the Electoral Commission are permitted to attend. Some returning officers produce postal ballot packs in-house, whilst others outsource the process to an external company such as Idox Elections.

Each postal ballot pack contains inside the cover envelope a ballot paper, two envelopes ("A" and "B") and a postal voting statement. Postal ballot papers contain the following design, security and identification features on the reverse:[6][7]

  • an official mark (e.g. a watermark or an official stamp);
  • a unique identifying mark (e.g. a barcode which is different for each individual ballot paper);
  • a unique identification number.

When issuing each postal ballot paper, the officer marks on a list (called the corresponding number list) next to the postal ballot's unique identification number the elector number of the voter to whom the postal ballot is sent, and then makes a mark next to the voter's name in a separate list of postal voters. The unique identification number of the postal ballot paper is also marked on the postal voting statement sent within the postal ballot pack. The local authority name and address and the name of the constituency/ward are printed on both envelopes "A" and "B". Once all ballot papers for an election have been issued by the returning officer, the corresponding number list is sealed in a packet which can only be opened upon the order of a court when an election result is challenged.[8][9]

Upon receipt of the postal ballot pack, the voter completes the ballot paper according to the instructions and seals it inside the envelope marked "A". A separate postal voting statement must be filled in by the voter with his/her date of birth and signature (unless a signature waiver has been granted or if the voter is an anonymous elector). It is strongly recommended that postal voting statement and envelope "A" (containing the ballot paper) be placed and sealed inside the larger envelope "B" when returned, although this is not a requirement. The vote can be posted back to the returning officer at the local authority address (postage is prepaid when returned from within the United Kingdom), or returned in person to the returning officer at the local authority office, or directly handed in to a polling station on polling day (but only one which is situated within the constituency/ward marked on envelopes "A"/"B").[10][11] For the vote to be counted, it must reach the returning officer/polling station by the close of poll (usually 10pm on polling day).

Upon receipt of a postal ballot pack in the post (or of the postal ballot paper and postal voting statement if sent separately), the returning officer places it inside the postal voters' ballot box allocated to the particular constituency/ward. If a presiding officer receives a postal ballot pack in a polling station, it is sealed inside a packet which is later delivered to the returning officer at the close of poll together with a form recording the number of postal ballot packs received by the presiding officer.[12][13]

Candidates and their agents, representatives of the Electoral Commission and observers accredited by them and entitled to observe the opening of postal ballot packs - the returning officer must give candidates and their agents at least 48 hours' written notice of the time and location of every opening session of postal ballot packs.[14] After emptying the postal voters' ballot box, the postal voting statements and envelopes marked "A"/loose postal ballot papers are separated into two different groups. The returning officer is required to verify the date of birth and signature filled in on at least 20% of the postal voting statements from each postal voters ballot box with the details provided on the original postal vote application forms. If the details do not match, then the postal voting statement is rejected. The returning officer makes a mark next to the name of the voter on the postal voters list for each postal voting statement received, even if it is selected for verification and rejected. On a separate list, the returning officer must write down the unique identification numbers of postal voting statements which were chosen for verification and subsequently rejected.

The returning officer then compiles all loose postal ballot papers together with postal ballot papers having been removed from envelopes marked "A". The unique identification numbers of all rejected postal ballot papers are noted on a list. The postal ballot papers are counted and finally placed in the postal ballot box(es), except for rejected postal ballot papers and postal ballot papers which have the same unique identification number as rejected postal voting statements. The postal ballot box is securely sealed by the returning officer (candidates and agents can also apply their own seals).


At the count, the postal ballot boxes have their seals broken, are opened and then the postal ballot papers are counted.

Voters can contact the returning officer to check that their postal voting packs (or their postal voting statements and their postal ballot papers) have been received - however a response can only be given after an opening session since the returning officer will have to refer to the postal voters list. At the end of an election, the marked postal voter lists are open for public inspection and also can be purchased by the Electoral Commission, candidates, elected representatives, government departments, police forces, registered political parties and local constituency parties.

Allegations of fraud

There have been many allegations of electoral abuse since the introduction of postal voting on demand in 2001. This note gives a brief history of postal voting including the all-postal pilots at local and European Parliamentary elections in 2004. The different election offences are outlined and the note also explains the means of challenging an election result by election petition. A chronology is given of recent developments including allegations of postal vote fraud at recent elections and subsequent court cases.[15][16]

2017 Copeland by-election

In March 2017 concerns were raised by Applied IF Limited, a firm of electoral analysts, about the apparent unlawfulness of the conduct of the 2017 Copeland by-election last week – and subsequently, video footage in which a BBC reporter talked about the ‘unusual’ handling of the trays used for ballot papers and separate footage in which BBC Question Time host David Dimbleby announced that Labour had held Copeland then quickly retracted it.

The figure of 9,000 is broadly in line with that reported for the 2015 General Election, in spite of what is later confirmed as the lower turnout in 2017. As the BBC’s Tom Bateman observed around 3am, the voting trays were still empty. An eyewitness at the scene reports that reports were circulating that Labour were ahead – until ‘boxes of postal votes arrived‘ at 1am. Sky’s Boadle knew at least roughly how many postal votes had been cast before midnight and pictures were taken earlier in the evening of paper bags of postal votes waiting to be counted, as the photograph (above) from a Daily Express page covering the by-election showed.

So why were boxes of postal votes arriving at 1am – long after Dimbleby and others were reporting a Labour hold? These late-arriving votes are extremely unlikely to be postal votes handed in at polling stations on the day – in the 2015 General Election, the total number of postal votes handed in was just 157 – such votes are counted and recorded separately, so the exact figure is known for 2015.

But, significantly, not yet for 2017. The number of postal votes – indicated approximately by Sky’s Tom Boadle above – was about the same as the number returned in the 2015 General Election, which had a significantly higher turnout (2015 63.8% v 51.4% 2017). Even though postal vote ‘turnout’ might hold up better at a by-election than in-person votes, in the context of the ‘unusual’ behaviour commented on by Bateman, it’s a cause for concern that merits investigation.

Nine thousand postal votes

Baron Lilley of Offa, Director of Idox Elections

The SKWAWKBOX has been advised that Idox Elections, an electoral services company of which senior Tory MP Peter Lilley is a director, ran the election on behalf of the local authority. The SKWAWKBOX contacted Idox today, but a spokeswoman advised she was not permitted to confirm and only the local authority could do so.

So, we now have a situation in which:

  • BBC and other announcers said Labour had held Copeland; others report it as ‘too close to call’.
  • the BBC reporter on the scene commented on the ‘unusual’ emptiness of the ballot trays and absence from view of the cast, counted ballots.
  • a figure of 9,000 was given for the total number of postal votes before midnight on election day.
  • postal votes were photographed in bags already at the venue waiting to be counted.
  • over an hour later, at 1am, large quantites of supposed postal votes in boxes turn up at the venue to be counted.
  • just after 3am on the 24th, Tory candidate Trudy Harrison is announced the winner of the 2017 Copeland by-election by just a whisker below 7 full percentage points, or 2,147 votes out of just over 31,000, which is not really ‘too close to call’, let alone a ‘Labour hold’.[17]

PostalVoteGate in 2019

Laura Kuenssberg's #PostalVoteGate

On 11 December 2019, the BBC's Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg appeared to have broken Electoral Law by revealing on the BBC's Politics Live programme confidential information about how Postal Voters had cast their vote prior to 10pm on polling day in the UK/2019 General Election:

"The postal votes, of course, have already arrived. The parties – they’re not meant to look at it – but they do kind of get a hint. And on both sides people are telling me that the postal votes that are in are looking pretty grim for Labour in a lot of parts of the country.”

Responding to Kuenssberg’s apparent unlawful admission, LBC Producer, Ava-Santina tweeted:

“The reason broadcasters are not allowed to reveal postal votes before 10pm polling day is it influences the vote. I really have no explanation of how this is allowed under broadcasting code.”

Evolve Politics website contacted both the BBC and the Electoral Commission for comment. The latter advised Evolve Politics to report the incident to the police, which they did.[18]

MJ tweeted:

"Percentage of postal vote.
"2015: 16.4%
"2017: 18%
"2019: wait for it... 38%
"Lmao, I’m no expert in voting systems but Boris has made 3rd world despotic leaders look like rookies in electoral malpractices.
"How did @bbclaurak get to know the results a day before we went to polls?"[19]

On 24 December 2019, A C Grayling tweeted:

Mere speculation, but: dodgy postal vote spike, dodgy Tory funding, Kuenssberg breaking electoral rules - what’s the chance of the election being voided, hung Parliament returning & this time getting it right: a government of national unity and a second-thoughts EU referendum?[20]

2020 USA presidential election

The US/2020 Presidential election has universal mail-in ballots.

2021 Newfoundland election

2021 Newfoundland and Labrador general election was the first postal voting-only election in Canada.

Touting for postal votes

PM David Cameron touting for postal votes

In February 2014, the then Prime Minister David Cameron wrote from Conservative Campaign Headquarters to each voter on the UK electoral register soliciting them to apply for a postal vote, and return their signed applications "Freepost" to: The Conservative Party, 1-7 Langleys Road, Birmingham, B29 6HR.

This is the text of the PM's letter:

Dear Voter,
Apply for a postal vote today and help us secure an EU Referendum
This year's European Parliamentary election is the most important in a generation.
For the first time since the Eurozone crisis, you get to have your say on Britain's relationship with the EU.
That's why I am asking you to consider applying to vote by post - so you have the peace of mind that you'll still have your say even if you are away, ill or busy on election day.
And if you prefer to vote in person, you can still take your postal vote to your local polling station and place it in the ballot box. Signing up for a postal vote puts you in control and ensures your voice will be heard whatever happens.
Europe needs to change
Since becoming Prime Minister I've already taken tough action to stand up for Britain in Europe by:
  • Cutting the EU budget to protect British taxpayers;
  • Vetoing a new EU treaty that would have given more powers to Brussels; and,
  • Refusing to spend British taxes on bailing out the euro.
My position on Europe is this:
1. The EU needs fundamental change so it works for Britain.
2. I will do my best to negotiate a better deal for the British taxpayer and our country.
3. When those negotiations are complete, the British people will have their say in an in-out referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU under the new negotiated agreement. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats oppose this plan and want to deny you a say, while UKIP simply can't deliver.
If I am Prime Minister after the next general election, there will be an in-out referendum by the end of 2017. This is my personal pledge to you.
Only the Conservatives can deliver real change in Europe - and the European election this year is a hugely important step to securing it.
How to help us secure that referendum
This election is a chance to send a message to Brussels that the EU must work for Britain if we are to remain a member.
So apply for a postal vote today and help us secure an in-out referendum by voting Conservative in this year's crucial European election.
Yours sincerely,
David Cameron
Prime Minister
(Promoted by Alan Mabbutt on behalf of the Conservative Party both of 4 Matthew Parker Street, London SW1H 9HQ -

Tories came third

David Cameron's efforts with postal voters appear not to have significantly influenced the result of the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections, since the UK Independence Party topped the poll with 26.6% of the national vote and won 24 seats overall. Labour came second with 24.4% of the vote and 20 seats, ahead of the Tories with 23.1% and 19 seats.[21]


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Tory in Charge of Entire Scottish Council Election CountArticle29 April 2017Mel KellyBeing a software engineer myself, my first thought was - could this be easily used to print replacement postal votes with the voters' ID and their signature, changing our vote for a different candidate while binning your postal vote? I had to conclude yes it could.


  1. "Demand Parliamentary Investigation into rigged postal votes 2019 Election"
  2. "Absentee Ballot Rules"
  3. "After 'tidal wave' of mail-in ballots, Minnesota polls open for primary voting Tuesday"
  4. "Postal Votes: The Danger of Industrial-Scale Electoral Fraud"
  5. Representation of the People Act 2000, Schedule 4, Paragraphs 3(8), 4(5) and 7(11)
  6. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 72
  7. Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001, Section 72
  8. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 75(1)
  9. Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001, Section 75(1)
  10. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 79(1)
  11. Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001, Section 79(1)(a)
  12. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 79(3)
  13. Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001, Section 79(2)
  14. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, Section 80
  15. "Postal voting and electoral fraud 2001-09"
  16. "Postal and proxy voting" page 28, Electoral Commission report
  18. Laura Kuenssberg#Breaking Electoral Law
  19. "How did @bbclaurak get to know the results a day before we went to polls?
  20. "A C Grayling on Twitter"
  21. "10 key lessons from the European election results"
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