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Elections in Northern Ireland

Find out how elections are run, where to find election results, how constituency boundaries are decided and reviewed, and how to stand as a candidate.

General (Westminster) elections

In a general election, every area in the UK votes for one Member of Parliament (MP) to represent them in the House of Commons at Westminster. There are 650 geographical areas, called constituencies. Northern Ireland has 18 of these Westminster constituencies, each with one MP.

Each eligible voter has one vote in their local constituency, and the candidate with the most votes becomes the MP for that area. This voting system is called 'first past the post'. Usually the political party with the most MPs then forms the government – though two or more parties with a combined majority of MPs may form a coalition government.

General elections are held every five years on the first Thursday in May. The next general election is scheduled to take place on 7 May 2015.

If an MP dies or resigns between elections, there is a by-election in their constituency.

Other than elections to the Westminster Parliament, all elections in Northern Ireland use proportional representation where you mark your preference for as many or as few candidates as you wish.

European elections

Elections for the European Parliament take place every five years. The last European elections were on 4 June 2009, and the next election will take place on 22 May 2014.

Northern Ireland is one region of the UK and has three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Northern Ireland Assembly elections

Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly take place every four years. The next elections are in 2016. Each of the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies elects six Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) so there are a total of 108 MLAs.

Local Government elections

Elections to the district councils take place every four years. The next elections are in 2014. The number of councillors varies from council to council depending largely on the size of the council area.

Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote)

Proportional Representation (PR) is an electoral system designed to make sure that the candidates elected represent accurately the opinions of the voters, ie that the strength of each party in the elected forum is in proportion to its support among the people.

The system used in Northern Ireland is called the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Every voter has only one vote, but they can ask for it to be transferred from one candidate to another to make sure it is not wasted. This is done by numbering the candidates in order of preference 1,2,3,4,5 and so on instead of just putting an "X" against one of them.

The STV system of PR is used at all elections in Northern Ireland except elections to the Westminster Parliament. At elections to that Parliament the traditional first-past-the-post system is used. You simply put an "X" against the candidate you support.

How does Proportional Representation work?

With Proportional Representation (PR) several candidates are elected together, representing all the sizeable bodies of opinion in the local constituency, in proportion to their strength. The bigger the constituency, the more chance a small party has of electing a representative.

One way of visualising a PR election is to think of how a class of children might choose three prefects. A number of candidates stand at the front of the room and the children line up behind their favourites. At first, the most popular candidate has most children behind him and the least popular only a few.

The children at the end of the longest line see their favourite does not need their support and move behind their second choice; the ones behind the least popular candidate see he has no chance, and they also  move behind their second choice.

Finally, all the children are ranged in more or less equal numbers behind just three of the candidates. Every child has a part to play in the election and has seen that their vote counts even though some of them may not have got exactly what they first wanted.

How many candidates can I vote for?

In European, Northern Ireland Assembly or Council elections you can vote for as many or as few candidates as you like. You put "1" against your first choice, "2" against your second choice and so on. Do not write anything else on the ballot paper or your vote may not count.

The Chief Electoral Officer

The Chief Electoral Officer administers elections and compiles the Register of Electors in Northern Ireland. He is independent of Government and is assisted in his duties by the staff of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. The current Chief Electoral Officer is Graham Shields.

The Electoral Office website provides information on registering to vote and the various types of elections, as well as guidance for candidates and a wide range of statistics, forms and leaflets.

The Electoral Commission

The Electoral Commission is an independent body which aims to increase integrity and public confidence in the democratic process. It regulates party and election finance. Its website provides information on many issues connected with elections, as well as data and results for past elections.The Commission also offers factsheets on a range of topics including ballot secrecy, donations to candidates, party political broadcasts, referendums and e-voting.

Constituencies and boundaries

Election boundaries

The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland reviews the parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland, and submits recommendations to the Secretary of State for changes to the constituency boundaries.

Standing for election

During election periods the Electoral Office publishes information for people interested in standing as a candidate in different types of elections.

More useful links

Register to vote

Find out about voting and download a registration form from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland (EONI) website