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Election glossary - A to O

  • Published: Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Elections bring their own set of jargon and specialist words. Use the Directgov election glossary to translate some of these terms.

Ballot box

A ballot box is a sealed container into which voters post their ballot papers in an election. The box is opened at the count after the voting period. It will usually be found in a polling station.

Ballot paper

The ballot paper lists the names of the candidates in alphabetical order. Candidates of registered political parties may include their party name and emblem but other candidates can only be described as independent. In a booth, which is screened to maintain secrecy, the voter marks the ballot paper with a cross in the box opposite the name of the candidate of his or her choice. The voter then folds the paper to hide their vote before placing it in the box.

Boundary Commissions

The boundary commissions are a set of independent organisations which have the role of reviewing Parliamentary constituencies and local authority boundaries. Any changes to these boundaries must be agreed by Parliament.


During a campaign, active supporters of a party will ask voters who they will vote for and will try to drum up support for their own candidates. This is known as canvassing.

Coalition government

If no party has a clear overall majority, two or more parties may work together to form a coalition government.


The UK is divided into areas called constituencies. One MP is elected to represent each of these areas. There are 650 constituencies: 533 in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales and 18 in Northern Ireland. The size and number of constituencies are reviewed by the boundary commissions.


Everyone standing for election as an MP must pay a £500 deposit. This is lost if they do not get 5 per cent of the total number of votes cast in their constituency. The deposit aims to discourage large numbers of frivolous candidates from standing.

Election agent

The election agent is the person legally responsible for a candidate's election campaign and the control of the campaign spending. A candidate may be his or her own election agent.

Election campaign

A general election campaign usually lasts for about three or four weeks. In the general election next month Parliament is dissolved on 12 April and the general election takes place on 6 May.

Electoral Commission

The Commission is an independent body that oversees controls on donations to, and campaign spending by, political parties and others. It also has a duty to review electoral law and practice and to promote public awareness of the electoral process.

Electoral register/roll

The electoral register (sometimes called the 'electoral roll') is a list of the names and addresses of everyone who is registered to vote.

Exit poll

Opinion poll companies may ask people how they have voted just after they have left the polling station. These are ‘exit polls’.

First past the post

This is the voting system used at local elections in England and Wales, and at UK Parliamentary elections. The candidate with the most votes is elected.

Hung parliament

A hung parliament is one in which no one political party has an outright majority of seats (at least 326 out of the 650 seats). If this happens, two or more parties may decide that they have enough in common to form a coalition government.


Political parties will often publish manifestos before the election as a public declaration of what they intend to do if elected.

Minority government

A government formed by a party which does not have an absolute majority in the House of Commons. Harold Wilson led a Labour minority government between February and October 1974.

Member of Parliament (MP)

An MP is elected by a particular area (‘constituency’) in Britain to represent them in the House of Commons. Once elected an MP represents all the people in his or her constituency. They can ask government ministers questions, speak about issues in the House of Commons and vote on and propose new laws.


Anyone who wants to stand for election as an MP must be nominated on an official nomination paper giving his or her full name and home address. They must stand either for a registered political party or as an independent. The nomination paper must include the signatures of ten electors who will support him or her, including a proposer and a seconder. Candidates must agree in writing to their nomination.

Oath or Affirmation

In the House of Commons, after election, an MP must swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen before taking his or her seat. Members who object to oath swearing may make a Solemn Affirmation instead.

Opinion poll

Opinion poll companies may ask voters who they intend to vote for at the election. These opinion polls are often commissioned by the political parties or the media.

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