How Voting Works in the U.K. and France: Your Questions Answered

On the eve of the French and British elections, Bolts responds to 10 reader questions on how they differ from the U.S. on voter registration, disenfranchisement, proxy voting, and more.

Ask Bolts, Daniel Nichanian   |    July 3, 2024

Paris during the 2017 elections (photo from Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

Two major elections are taking place this week, within days of one another. The United Kingdom votes on Thursday to elect its members of parliament for the first time since 2019. France then heads to the polls on Sunday for runoffs that will decide the make-up of its National Assembly.

The timing of both elections are major surprises. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called them in late May, while French President Emmanuel Macron shocked his country on June 9 by announcing that he was dissolving the National Assembly and organizing elections within a month.

Each election will decide who governs the country, using rules that often differ from U.S. norms. The modes of government vary, of course, but so do policies, gerrymandering, voter registration, voting in or after prison, voter ID, tabulations, and much more. 

At Bolts, we’re always interested in varying models of democracy, and what lessons they teach us. And we suspected that our readers have many questions as well. 

As part of our ongoing “Ask Bolts” series, we asked you to let us know what you’re thinking—and you delivered. We narrowed down your questions (with great difficulty) and had fun answering them below.  

We’ve organized your questions under five themes—explore at your leisure:

Read on to learn how people vote in France and the U.K., why snap elections are a thing, what constraints exist on gerrymandering, and much more. 

Why is this happening right now?

Snap elections are indeed unusual by U.S. standards: Current U.S. law dictates that federal elections be held in early November every two years—rain or shine. State governments tend to have similarly rigid calendars. 

In France, by contrast, the president has unchecked power to dissolve the National Assembly and order parliamentary elections; the only constraint is that it can’t be done again for a year. But this move is always a personal gamble: When presidents lose parliamentary elections, they appoint a prime minister from within the coalition that controls the Assembly; in such a configuration, presidents are largely reduced to a figurehead when it comes to domestic affairs. That’s what happened in 1997, the last time a president called snap elections: Conservative President Jacques Chirac thought his camp would emerge victorious, but there was instead an upset by the left. 

And now it’s happening to Macron, who called elections three years before they were scheduled. His party held a plurality in the outgoing Assembly but now appears on track to lose at least half of its seats later this week. 

In the U.K., snap elections are even more routine. It’s always the prime minister’s prerogative to decide when exactly to schedule the next national elections, though they must be within five years of the last ones. Unlike in France, there isn’t even a default date for the next election.

This system has faced plenty of criticism that it gives the ruling party an unfair advantage, and the U.K. actually experimented with reform in recent years: A 2011 law significantly constrained the PM’s prerogative, setting a default term of five years and requiring that the House of Commons approve earlier elections. “For the first time in our history the timing of general elections will not be a plaything of governments,” said one of the reform’s champions at the time. But subsequent PMs still managed to convince Parliament to schedule unexpected snap elections to take advantage of favorable polling, and the reform was repealed in 2022

But let’s return to the U.S.: Manipulating the timing of elections isn’t exactly rare here either.

State and local officials sometimes schedule ballot measures on dates they think will be most favorable to their goals. In 2018, for instance, Missouri Republicans controversially rescheduled a labor initiative from the November general election to the lower-turnout summer primary, expecting that this would yield better outcomes for them; last year, the Oklahoma governor scheduled a popular initiative to legalize marijuana on a standalone winter date, a choice denounced by state groups as a maneuver to depress turnout. 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Picture from UK Prime Minister/Flickr)

How do these parliamentary elections even work?

Just like in the U.S., France and the U.K. are carved up into districts, and each district elects one member of Parliament. (That’s what’s happening this week.) Unlike in the U.S., neither country has intraparty primaries; party leaders designate their nominees, rather than leave that decision to a popular vote. 

Otherwise, the rules of U.K. elections should be familiar to Americans: Each district holds a first-past-the-post election to select its MP, much like what’ll happen in the U.S. in November. In each district, the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, whatever their share of the vote. 

France holds its parliamentary elections over two rounds, though. In the first round, voters get to choose between all candidates who filed to run. If a candidate tops 50 percent, they win outright. Otherwise, a runoff is held a week later, and whomever gets the most votes in the runoff wins.

But who exactly makes these runoffs? Here’s where things get tricky: Runoffs in France’s parliamentary elections can have more than two candidates. 

The top two candidates always advance, plus any candidate who gets the support of more than 12.5 percent of the district’s registered voters. When turnout is low, it’s a lot harder to cross that threshold; candidates need a prohibitively high share of the actual votes cast. But when turnout is high, as it is this year, third-placed candidates routinely make it through. 

In France’s 2022 elections, turnout was just 48 percent; as a result, just eight out of 577 districts saw three-way runoffs. But turnout last Sunday surged to 67 percent. As a result, 311 districts saw three candidates advance; a handful of districts even had four candidates make the runoffs.

This set up a mad scramble. There are many French districts in which the far-right party, the Rassemblement National, likely cannot top 50 percent of the vote in two-candidate runoffs; but it has a much stronger shot in three-way battles where it only needs a plurality. In an effort to block the far-right and not split the vote, over 200 candidates dropped out in the days after the first round; as of publication, only 91 districts are still set for a runoff of more than two candidates.

In fact, France came close to having a system that looks a lot more like the U.K.’s: One of the main drafters of the 1958 constitution admired the British first-past-the-post system, but was overruled by President Charles de Gaulle, who saw the runoff system as likelier to produce stable majorities, according to Georges Bergougnous, a professor at the Sorbonne University. 

Neither the French nor British system is ultimately conducive to a parliamentary landscape where smaller political forces are well represented. The U.K.’s first-past-the-post system creates the same sort of pressure for voters to opt for the dominant parties as in U.S. general elections. In France, with each district electing one member and a two-round system that usually requires candidates to get a majority, it boxes out many parties unless they ally with larger forces.

Both countries have seen insistent calls by smaller parties and some election reformers to select at least part of Parliament through a method of proportional representation, but these proposals have not come through. (France briefly switched to a proportional system from 1986 to 1988.) 

Both countries’ parliaments also skew male and white, and people with immigrant backgrounds are underrepresented

France does have a law requiring that parties nominate an equal number of men and women, or else face fines. Since the law was adopted by the left in 2000, the share of women in the National Assembly has soared from 11 percent to 37 percent in 2022, but some parties don’t respect the requirement. (France imposes stricter gender parity in other elections.) In the U.K, which has no such requirement, women make up a third of the outgoing House of Commons. Women in the U.S. won 29 percent of House seats in 2022, which was a record-high for the country. 

People take ballot papers in the June 30 elections in France. (Photo by Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via AP)

So, how do you vote?

Neither France nor the U.K. has any in-person early voting. Polls are open on Election Day. In France, that’s always on a Sunday; in the U.K., it’s always been on a Thursday since the 1930s

So what do you do if you can’t make it to the polls on that one day? As the question indicates, France has no mail-in voting. The U.K. does, though: Voters there can cast postal ballots.

Plus, both France and the U.K. have a system of proxy voting: People can deputize their right to vote to someone else by filing an application, which in both countries can be done online. On Election Day, this person then has the ability to go to your polling place and cast a ballot in your name—in addition to the ballot they’ll cast in their own name. There’s no way to control what the person you deputized does: You’ll have to find someone you trust will respect your wishes.

To your final question, the number of people who deputized their right to vote surged in France, in part due to the fact that Macron timed these snap elections for the early summer. More than 2 million voters signed up for proxy voting, which is more than double the 2022 elections.

The U.K.’s Conservative government recently adopted new requirements for people to show photo ID to vote. It was implemented for the first time in local elections last year, and will be used again in the national elections this week. We posed your question to Jessica Garland, director of research and policy at the U.K.-based Electoral Reform Society and a critic of this new requirement.

This is a “solution looking for a problem,” she answered. “Prior to the introduction of voter ID there were very low levels of recorded personation fraud in Britain,” she said, pointing to the country’s 2019 national and local elections: “Out of all alleged cases of electoral fraud that year, only 33 related to personation fraud at the polling station—this comprises 0.000057% of the over 58 million votes cast in all the elections that took place that year.” 

Compare those tiny numbers to the disruptions caused by the new law: Thousands of British people were turned away from the polls in 2023 due to the requirement, and thousands more did not attempt to vote as a result, according to the nation’s Electoral Commission

Said Garland, “Since its introduction, voter ID has prevented thousands more people from voting than have ever been accused of personation fraud.” This is a familiar phenomenon in the United States. Under the guise of cracking down on fraud, which is tremendously rare, conservative laws have deterred large numbers of eligible Americans from voting.

In both countries, it’s up to residents to proactively register to vote and update their registration as they move (either online, or at a government agency). And they must register weeks before election day. In France this year, because Macron organized snap elections within three weeks—an exceptionally rapid campaign—the deadline came within a day of his announcement, leaving people virtually no time to check their status and get on voter rolls amid widespread confusion.  

Reformers warn that millions of people are falling through the cracks of this system in both the U.K. and France. Many aren’t registered to vote or are registered at the wrong address. 

“This process for registration is proving to be an obstacle to universal suffrage,” Garland told Bolts about the U.K., where she works. “The groups most likely to be missing from the electoral registers are those who rent their homes (only 65 percent of private renters are registered compared to 95 percent of those who own their homes) and young people.” 

Garland wants the U.K. to adopt automatic voter registration, a model that exists in other European countries and many U.S. states. (French people are automatically registered at age 18, provided they abided by the mandatory census at age 16; but there is no update after they inevitably move.)

The idea is for public agencies to use information they already have to proactively register people to vote; this increases the registration rates among groups that are less likely to be engaged in the electoral process. (In the U.S., many states automatically register people through the DMV; some states are trying to register people when they interact with Medicaid services or when they are released from prison.)

The Labour Party has said it’ll introduce automatic voter registration in the U.K. if it wins Thursday’s elections. 

Election staff in London upload results (Photo from Jim Killock/Flickr)

How are districts drawn?

Let’s tackle them one by one. In the U.K., these districts are drawn by so-called boundary commissions. There’s a separate commission for each of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Since a reform adopted in 2020, boundaries are meant to be reviewed every eight years.

These bodies are mostly independent. “The scope for electoral gerrymandering, U.S.-style, is vanishingly small,” The Guardian quipped in 2023, the last time the map was redrawn. Garland agrees: “Changes must include public consultation and be agreed by parliament, and boundary decisions must be made according to principles that are set out in law,” she told Bolts. “This process and the commissions are generally viewed as non-partisan, and the commissioners are not under direct ministerial control.”

France mostly ignores redistricting. The country last redrew its boundaries in 2010; despite extensive demographic change, the rounds of redistricting before that were in 1986 and 1958.

It’s effectively up to the ruling Cabinet to decide if the time has come. At that point, the process is led by the Minister of the Interior in consultation with local leaders and political parties.

On paper, this could be a recipe for gerrymandering gone wild since the entire nation’s map is overseen by one partisan actor. But that doesn’t tend to be the case, according to Thomas Ehrhard, a professor of political science at the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas who has written a book on redistricting in France. He told Bolts that redistricting in the past has produced maps that were meant to protect incumbents, but that they were not distorted by partisanship. 

One reason for this is that districts must respect other administrative boundaries; this “prevents monstrous forms of gerrymandering,” Ehrhard said. For instance, districts can’t overlap between different départments (the rough equivalent of a U.S. county), many of which are quite small; this greatly constrains what can be done with them. Districts “have fairly homogeneous territorial cohesion that respects the socio-economic realities of small geographical areas,” Ehrhard says. 

Each of the last two rounds of redistricting was overseen by the ruling conservative party, Ehrhard points out. Each time, the center-left won the first elections held under the new maps. 

The fact that France redistricts so rarely means that it addresses demographic shifts very slowly, and population disparities between districts can snowball. 

And even when the country adopts a new map, districts may already be drawn with uneven sizes. Each district can deviate by up to 20 percent from its county’s average district population. That’s a large allowance compared to the U.S., where all districts within a state must be as equal as possible. 

Right before the 2010 redistricting, there was a 7 to 1 disparity between the populations of the smallest and largest district in mainland France. (Districts in some of France’s overseas regions tend to be smaller.) As of 2022, the disparity was 3 to 1, according to an analysis by Le Monde that shows large variance across the country

On paper, the U.K. is much stricter: The country only allows for a variation of 5 percent.

But there’s another major source of disparity there: The size of districts is assessed based only on the number of people who are registered to vote, not based on an area’s total population. This dilutes representation for areas that have a greater number of residents who are ineligible to vote, or who simply are less likely to be on voter rolls. 

“Practically, it means the [Members of Parliament] representing young and diverse inner-city seats have to serve much larger populations of constituents than MPs representing older, rural seats with high registration rates,” Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University, told The Guardian. An analysis released last year by pollster Peter Kellener confirmed that this significantly distorts the political map; districts held by Labour are on average more populous than districts held by the Tories. 

Street signs during the lightning round French campaign in June 2024 (photo from Daniel Nichanian/Bolts)

Who can vote?

France mostly does not strip people of the right to vote when they’re convicted of a crime—including while they’re incarcerated.

It largely enables people to vote even from prison, as Cole Stangler reported in Bolts during the country’s 2022 presidential election. “Today, only a small minority of the country’s prisoners are stripped of their voting rights—political officials who have misused their power and convicted terrorists,” Stangler wrote at the time. This is a far cry from the U.S., where only Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., have no restrictions on people voting from prison.

France has also taken proactive steps in recent years to help incarcerated people actually exercise this right. Turnout among people from prison surged nearly 13-fold between 2017 and 2022.

The U.K. disenfranchises people convicted of a crime while they’re in prison. The European Court of Human Rights repeatedly said that this ban violates human rights, rulings that triggered some debate in the country but ultimately led to only minor changes

But the U.K. allows its citizens to vote when they’re released from prison.

That, too, is a far cry from vast swaths of the United States; in roughly half of the states, people with felony convictions are barred from voting long after they’ve been released; sometimes they have to pay hefty fees to regain their voting rights. Neither France nor the U.K. does anything resembling the practice of some U.S. states like Mississippi and Virginia, which strip people of their right to vote for life over most or all felony convictions. 

The two countries approach representation for citizens who live overseas very differently. 

U.K. citizens vote in the district where they used to live. (This means that they cannot vote in parliamentary elections if they’ve never lived in the country in the past.) In practice, this means they have to cast a mail ballot or deputize a proxy to vote for them. 

France, by contrast, has seats just for its citizens who live outside of France: The entire globe is carved up into 11 districts, and each of these districts elects an Assemblymember through the same exact procedure as any other seat. (There are calls in the U.K. to set up similar districts.) French citizens who live abroad can vote at polling centers set up by their consulate on election day, or they can vote online—an option that does not exist in mainland France. 

For instance, all of the United States makes up one French district alongside Canada. In the district’s first round this past Sunday, a candidate from Macron’s party and a candidate from the Left coalition advanced to a runoff.

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