To vote at the UK general election you must be (among other things):

  • be a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen
  • be resident at an address in the UK (or a UK citizen living abroad who has been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years)
  • [..]

The following cannot vote in a UK Parliament election:

  • EU citizens (other than UK, Republic of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta) resident in the UK
  • anyone other than British, Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens
  • [..]

The list of commonwealth countries is quite long, and includes Canada, Australia, India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and many more.

I understand the historical ties between these countries, but most of them been independent for quite a while; for example Ireland since 1916, India since 1947, etc.

What is the rationale for still allowing citizens from these countries to vote, while not extending suffrage to other countries (such as citizens from EU countries, the United States, etc.)?

  • 1
    What does exactly mean "qualifying Commonwealth citizen"? Maybe it implies additional restrictions (e.g., having resided in the UK for a given time, etc.) It would help clarify the number of people involved.
    – SJuan76
    Jun 8, 2017 at 14:47

3 Answers 3


It is worth noting that Commonwealth citizens are not considered "foreigners" or "aliens" under British law (British Nationality Act 1981 Part IV : 37), and are thus allowed to vote as enshrined by law. An obvious example of this is that our "foreign" ministry is named the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

You must remember that the Commonwealth was initially born as a bit of empire management and were initially agreed as autonomous states that were still "loyal to the Crown". As parliament was initially simply an advisory body of the Crown, any "subject" of the Crown was allowed to vote or get elected to the houses of parliament.

The UK only really accepted the existence of the Commonwealth in the Balfour Declaration of 1926 where it was decreed that

autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations

Note the wording of the above text, even though they recognised the independence of these nations they still at least partially considered them "communities within the British Empire".

The British simply never changed the law or their position even though shifting world events mean that the Commonwealth has little political significance apart from "lip service", and have always continued to recognise citizens of the Commonwealth at least partially as separate to other foreigners. And their has been no significant movement to change this law.

Although I can't find the interview anymore, I distinctly remember an interview where the current Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said on camera as an off the cuff remark that 'it was important to protect the rights of commonwealth citizens to vote' - if anyone can find the video please post it in the comments and I will edit my answer to reflect as such


I couldn't find much credible sources regarding this, but here's an official response from the UK government to a petition requesting that only British voters be allowed to vote in UK elections.

As an issue of national significance, the Parliamentary franchise is the appropriate starting point. This follows precedent, including the 1975 vote on membership of the European Economic Community.

The franchise for the EU referendum is based on the franchise for Parliamentary elections. Reflecting our historical ties, this includes Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK. Two small additions have been made to the Parliamentary franchise: Members of the House of Lords; and Commonwealth and Irish citizens who can vote at European Parliamentary elections in Gibraltar.

The referendum is an issue of national significance, so it is appropriate that the Parliamentary franchise is used as a starting point. This is the approach we have taken to similar referendums in the past. For example this franchise was used, except for the addition of Gibraltar, for the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community and for the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum. It is also similar to the franchise set for the referendum lock on transfers of power from the UK to the EU required under the European Union Act 2011.

This franchise also follows the usual practice for referendums in other EU Member States. Under the EU treaties, EU nationals have the right to vote in municipal elections and elections to the European Parliament in other Member States. But this right does not extend to national elections or referendums. For example, British citizens living in the Netherlands and France were not entitled to vote in the Dutch or French referendums in 2005.

The UK Parliamentary franchise includes, in addition to British citizens resident in the UK or abroad if they were registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years, resident Irish citizens and resident Commonwealth citizens who have leave to enter or remain.

The European Union Referendum Bill received Royal Assent on 17 December 2015 and is now an Act of Parliament. The question of the franchise was properly debated in Parliament during the passage of the Bill and this approach received overwhelming support of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is not possible for Parliament to change the franchise without fresh primary legislation which would significantly delay the referendum, the date for which has also now been set by legislation.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

UK citizens can also vote in Irish Dáil Éireann elections

It's worth noting that there's a reciprocal agreement between the Ireland and the UK. The Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1985 gave the right to British citizens to vote in elections to Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament).

(1A) (a) In addition to those entitled to be registered under subsection (1) of this section, a person shall be entitled to be registered as a Dáil elector in a constituency if he is a person who has reached the age of eighteen years and who on the qualifying date—

(i) complied with the requirement of subsection (1) (b) of this section, and

(ii) was either—

(I) a British citizen, or

(II) a national of a Member State to which this subsection applied on that date.

(b) This subsection applies to a Member State which is for the time being the subject of a declaration under subsection (1B) of this section.

  • 4
    Your first source isn't really relevant. You claim it is about "UK elections" but it is clear from both your quote and the actual title of the petition that it is about the "EU referendum". The response doesn't cover why residents from the commonwealth are allowed to vote in UK elections, it just says they're allowed to vote in parliamentary elections so it was easiest to allow them to vote in the EU referendum.
    – AndyT
    Jun 9, 2017 at 9:11

Originally all residents of the Empire were "British subjects" and essentially British in British law. Immediately after the Second World War a new nationality act made explicit the common citizenship of the Empire's citizens in non-independent states. This has since been repealed but is also at the heart of the "Windrush scandal" - people who came here perfectly legally and legitimately as British subjects being deprived of their rights because the country they left became independent and adopted its own citizenship laws.

One of the legacies of the original common "Britishness" is the right to vote - there used to be others (eg students from Commonwealth countries were regarded as home students for fee purposes until the 1960s) but they have gone. But letting people vote costs close to nothing.

Ireland is a special case of the above as it explicitly left the Commonwealth - the British Parliament legislated in 1949 to confer a status similar to Commonwealth citizens on Irish citizens.

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