Vote 2012: A guide to polls taking place on 3 May

On 3 May, voters across Britain will go to the polls for council elections in England, Scotland and Wales, while several cities, including London, will choose their next directly-elected mayor. Referendums will be held in other cities to decide whether to have a directly-elected mayor in the future:

WHEN ARE THE POLLS?

This Thursday, 3 May. You can vote in person from 7am to 10pm.

WHAT ARE WE VOTING FOR?

Elections will be held in 128 English local authorities, the London Assembly, all 32 Scottish local authorities and 21 of the 22 Welsh councils. A council-by-council guide to the local elections in England, Wales and Scotland can be found here. Most of the English authorities will have a third of their seats up for grabs. A few will re-elect half their councillors, while several more will have all of their seats up for re-election because of ward boundary changes. Scottish and Welsh councils will hold all-out elections.

Londoners will elect the 25 members of the London Assembly and also vote for a new mayor.

Liverpool and Salford will select their first directly-elected mayors, while 10 other cities - Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield - will each hold a referendum to decide whether they should also create the post in future. Doncaster, meanwhile, will hold a referendum to decide whether to abolish its directly-elected mayor. Read more about the mayoral contests and who is standing in them here.

WHO CAN VOTE?

You must be registered to vote, be at least 18 years old on polling day, and be a British, Republic of Ireland or Commonwealth citizen living in the UK. Citizens of other EU member states resident in the UK can also vote in English local authority elections if they are registered.

WHO IS BARRED FROM VOTING?

The following are not allowed to vote in referendums and local elections: convicted prisoners; anybody found guilty of election corruption within the last five years; people who are subject to any "legal incapacity" which impairs their judgement.

HOW DO I REGISTER TO VOTE?

Most people register between September and November every year when the local electoral registration office delivers a registration form to their home. This is known as the "annual canvass". However, you can also register throughout the year as the register is updated every month between December and September. This is useful if you move home and need to register at your new address. You can check whether you are on the electoral roll by contacting the electoral services department at your local council. Their contact details are listed on the Electoral Commission's special website. Click here for details

HOW DO I VOTE?

Those registered to vote should have been sent a polling card from about a month before the election, naming your polling station. As long as you know where you are supposed to vote, you don't need to take the card with you to vote. No other form of identification is required.

HOW MANY BALLOT PAPERS WILL I GET?

It depends on where you are:

England: most voters will get only one ballot paper for their council election although some will get others for parish and mayoral elections.

Scotland and Wales: voters will receive one ballot paper for their council election.

London: voters will receive three papers - pink for the mayoral election, yellow to choose a constituency Assembly member and orange for a London-wide Assembly member.

HOW DO THE VOTING SYSTEMS WORK?

English and Welsh council elections use the first-past-the-post system - where whoever gets the most votes wins.

Scottish councils use the single transferable vote system (STV) - in which voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Each voter gets one vote which can be transferred from their first to second preference (and further down the list if necessary) if the first has no chance of winning. Candidates don't need a majority of votes to be elected, just a known "quota", or share.

Directly-elected mayors are chosen using the supplementary vote system. Similar to STV, voters choose their first and second preference candidates, and if no candidate wins 50% of the vote in the first round, all but the top two are eliminated. The second preferences of those who voted for eliminated candidates are then reallocated and the individual with the most votes wins.

The London Assembly uses the additional member system. Fourteen members, one for each constituency, are elected by first-past-the-post, and a further 11 London-wide members are chosen by a form of proportional representation. They are allocated on the basis of a mathematical formula which takes into account the total votes cast and the number of constituency seats each party has already won.

CAN I VOTE BY POST?

Yes. You can ask for a postal vote from the electoral services department at your local council - whom you should also contact if your polling card fails to arrive. If you apply for a postal vote and then decide you would like to vote in person after all, you must take the whole of your postal voting package to the polling station in order to vote. If you have applied to vote by post, you cannot vote in person at the polling station. However, on election day you can return your postal vote to the polling station, before 10pm, or to the returning officer at your local council (before they close), if you do not want to post it or it is too late to post it. See the Electoral Commission's guidelines for postal voting.

WHAT ABOUT PROXY VOTES?

You can only apply for a long-term proxy vote if you have a specific reason such as a disability or being overseas. To vote by proxy for just one election, you must have a reason, for example you will be on holiday or away due to work. If you are suddenly incapacitated or taken ill, you can apply to vote by proxy for medical reasons up until 5pm on polling day.

IF I LIVE OVERSEAS, CAN I STILL VOTE?

In general British citizens living abroad cannot vote in local elections. However, crown servants - such as embassy staff - and any member of the Armed Forces or their families, can register to vote even if serving overseas.

WHAT HELP IS THERE FOR DISABLED VOTERS?

To help blind and partially-sighted voters, there has to be a "tactile device" in each polling station and there are rules on the size of print on ballot papers. The vast majority of polling stations are now more accessible for wheelchair users. Proxy ballots are allowed for those unable to vote because of disability. A doctor's note is required if the person with disabilities is applying for an indefinite proxy vote.

WHAT HAPPENS IF A VOTER IS ILLITERATE

There is no literacy qualification for voting: anyone who can not read or write can ask the polling officer at the polling station to mark their ballot, or take a companion to help them.

IS VOTING COMPULSORY?

No. People cannot be forced to vote, nor is registration itself compulsory.

IS MY VOTE SECRET?

Yes. The ballot papers contain a serial number and it is possible, but illegal, to trace all the votes to the people who cast them. The number is there to stop electoral fraud.

WHO CAN STAND AS A CANDIDATE?

Candidates must be aged 18 or above and either be British, or citizens of other European Union or Commonwealth countries.

Those banned for standing in the elections include: bankrupts; civil servants; police officers; armed forces personnel; government-nominated directors of commercial companies; judges; members of parliament in non-Commonwealth nations; those convicted of electoral malpractice.

Here are the specific guidelines for England and Wales, and Scotland.

In addition, those standing in English council elections must be on the electoral register of the council concerned or either have lived in or worked in the council area within the past year.

HOW CAN I SET UP A POLITICAL PARTY?

All political parties have to be registered with the Electoral Commission if they want their names to appear on ballot papers, a process which costs £150. The commission will need the names of three party officials and details of the party's financial structure. It can refuse to register a party if its name is confusingly similar to another party's or if the name is deemed offensive.

HOW MUCH CAN THE PARTIES/CANDIDATES SPEND?

Registered parties are restricted in their spending for the 365 days before an election. See the Electoral Commission guidelines. The electoral watchdog has published separate guidelines on how much candidates can spend in each of the elections.

WHERE DOES THEIR MONEY COME FROM?

Political parties and candidates raise funds in a variety of ways from subscriptions and individual donations to local fetes and dinners. There are strict rules on donations: Those of more than £500 to a party or £50 to a candidate have to be from permissible donors - effectively banning overseas gifts. All donations of more than £7,500 to a party, lead campaigner in the referendum or £1,500 to a local branch, have to be publicly declared.

WHO ORGANISES THE ELECTION?

The top civil servant of the local authority is the returning officer for the elections in each constituency, with the day-to-day running of the poll left to the head of the council's electoral services department.

WHY ARE ELECTIONS HELD ON THURSDAYS?

They don't have to be - it's just a convention. One theory about its origins is that people were not paid until Fridays and so holding polls on Thursdays ensured they were not too drunk to vote. The Electoral Commission has recommended trials of weekend voting to boost turnout.

HOW CAN I FIND OUT WHAT A CANDIDATE OR PARTY BELIEVES?

Contact your local election office to find out who is standing in your area. There is no official source of information on candidates, so you should visit their websites, write or speak to them, or get hold of their election leaflets.

ARE THERE RULES FOR THE BBC'S COVERAGE?

Every part of the BBC has to follow election guidelines set down by the BBC Trust. They include advice on the "appropriate" level of coverage to give to each of the political parties.

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