EU Referendum – Who can vote?

Published 22/06/2015   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Article by Aled McKenzie, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Who can vote, and who can’t

Whilst elections at local, devolved and European level have a different franchise, at Westminster elections the rules as to who is eligible to vote are outlined as follows by the Electoral Commission.

A person must be registered to vote, and

  • be 18 years of age or over on polling day
  • be a British citizen, a qualifying Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland
  • not be subject to any legal incapacity to vote

The Conservative Government have insofar decided to continue with the Westminster franchise for the forthcoming referendum on continued membership of the European Union, with two key exceptions. Commonwealth citizens resident in Gibraltar will be eligible to vote, as will Members of the House of Lords. This excludes several significant groups which some believe should have a right to vote.

The ‘Other Place’

Members of the House of Lords (often referred to as the ‘other place’ during Commons debates) are barred from voting in Westminster elections as they are already represented in Parliament. However, for local, devolved or European elections they are entitled to vote, and they will be able to vote in the coming referendum. There is precedent for allowing Lords the vote in constitutional questions proposed in referendums; it was extended to them during the referendum on Scottish independence for instance. The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond MP has said it ‘is clearly right that the franchise should be extended to them in the referendum.'


Commonwealth citizens resident in Gibraltar don’t normally get the chance to vote in Westminster elections as no British Overseas Territories are represented in Parliament. However, unlike the other British Overseas Territories Gibraltar is a part of the European Union, and therefore they will be allowed to have a say in the outcome. Gibraltar votes in European elections as part of the South West of England constituency, therefore there is precedent for Gibraltar to be involved with the nations of the UK at a European level. Yet, only British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens will be eligible to vote in Gibraltar despite the fact that EU citizens can vote in European election if resident in Gibraltar.

Although the Gibraltar Parliament will be implementing the UK Bill ‘wherever possible,’ they will also be introducing their own referendum Bill, which the Foreign Secretary said ‘will be complementary to the UK legislation.'

EU Citizens

With the exception of Maltese and Cypriot citizens (due to their membership of the Commonwealth) and citizens of the Republic of Ireland, EU nationals will not be given the right to vote. Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) criticized the UK Government for giving priority to Commonwealth citizens rather than EU citizens. The UK Government responds that ‘Westminster parliamentary franchise should be the basis for consulting the British people.’ This has been criticised by certain parties, including the SNP. SNP MP Angus MacNeil stated:

‘Two weeks ago I was in North Uist and met one of my constituents, who is from Germany. She has lived in North Uist for 25 years and she voted in the Scottish referendum, but she cannot vote in this referendum. Why were the Scottish Government more generous to and more understanding of her rights as a citizen for 25 years than the Tory Government? Why is she excluded?’

She is not the only example being used by the SNP of EU nationals not being included in the franchise. During the same debate Alex Salmond talked of Christian Allard MSP, a French citizen who is a member of the Scottish Parliament and voted in the independence referendum who will not have the right to vote in the EU referendum.

A Bill put forward by the Conservative peer Lord Balfe which would extend the franchise to EU Citizens resident in the UK at all elections has recently had its first reading in the House of Lords. This would come into force the day the law is passed and if passed quickly enough the Westminster franchise could include EU citizens resident in the UK. Nonetheless, this Bill is some way behind the referendum Bill which has already reached the Committee stage so this is unlikely to happen.

16 and 17

As discussed in an earlier blog post, the UK Government does not look likely to introduce an expansion of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds for this referendum. This has caused contention in Westminster, with multiple MPs and parties wishing to amend the legislation. Green MP Caroline Lucas said:

'I want to press the Foreign Secretary again on the question of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The answer he gave about why we should not do it—because it is an issue of national importance—is the main reason he should do it. He said that he did not want to deviate from the franchise for Westminster, but he is already doing that by extending it to peers. Why not let young people have a say on their future, which is what this Bill is about?'

Various amendments with support from Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have been presented to Parliament with the goal of allowing 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in the referendum. As with EU citizens, they were granted the right to vote in the Scottish independence referendum and this has led to criticism of the UK Government from opposition parties for not allowing this again. Opposition to the UK Government over the extent of the franchise for the referendum is an issue in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Prime Minister has since announced a vote in the Commons on whether to lower the voting age, despite making clear that the Conservative position is to keep the voting age threshold as it is.