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By law, a general election must take place every five years. The government decides when to hold an election, and the Prime Minister may decide to go to the country earlier than is legally necessary if there seems to be a good chance of winning.
General elections are always held on Thursdays. After the date has been fixed, anyone who wants to stand for Parliament (= be a candidate for election) has to leave a deposit of 500 with the Returning Officer, the person in each constituency responsible for managing the election. The local offices of the major parties pay the deposit for their own candidates. If a candidate wins more than 5% of the votes, he or she gets the deposit back. Otherwise candidates lose their deposit. This is intended to stop people who do not seriously want to be MPs from taking part in the election. Sometimes people who feel very strongly about an issue, e.g. protecting the lives of unborn babies, become candidates and campaign specifically about that issue. A few people become candidates for a joke, especially in the constituency which the Prime Minister is defending, because they know that they will get a lot of publicity. One candidate, 'Lord' David Sutch, has stood against the Prime Minister in most elections since 1966.
Before an election takes place candidates campaign for support in the constituency. The amount of money that candidates are allowed to spend on their campaign is strictly limited. Leading members of the government and the opposition parties travel throughout the country addressing meetings and 'meeting the people', especially in marginals, constituencies where only a slight shift of opinion would change the outcome of the voting. Local party workers spend their time canvassing, going from house to house to ask people about how they intend to vote. At national level the parties spend a lot of money on advertising and media coverage. They cannot buy television time: each party is allowed a number of strictly timed party political broadcasts. Each also holds a daily televised news conference.
If an MP dies or resigns, a by-election is held in the constituency which he or she represented. By-elections are closely watched by the media as they are thought to indicate the current state of public opinion and the government's popularity.
Anyone over the age of 18 has the right to vote at elections, provided that they are on the electoral register. This is a list of all the adults living in a constituency. A new, revised list is compiled each year. Copies are available for people to look at in local public libraries. Voting is not compulsory but the turnout (= the number of people voting) at general elections is usually high, about 75%.
About a week in advance of an election everyone on the electoral register receives a pollingcard. This tells them where their polling station is, i.e. where they must go to vote. On the day of the election, polling day, voters go to the polling station and are given a ballot paper. This lists the names of all the candidates for that constituency, together with the names of the parties they represent. Each voter then goes into a polling booth where nobody can see what they are writing, and puts a cross next to the name of one candidate only, the one they want to elect. Polling stations, often local schools or church halls, are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to give everyone an opportunity to vote. During a general election, people leaving the polling station may be asked by professional analysts called pollsters how they voted. Similar exit polls taken all over the country are used to predict the overall election result.
After the polls close, the ballot papers from all the polling stations in a constituency are taken to a central place to be counted. In most constituencies counting takes place the same evening, continuing for as long as necessary through the night. If the number of votes for two candidates is very close, the candidates may demand a recount. Several recounts may take place until all the candidates are satisfied that the count is accurate. Finally, the Returning Officer makes a public announcement giving the number of votes cast for each candidate and declaring the winner to be the MP for the constituency. On general election night, television and radio keep everyone informed of the results throughout Britain and make predictions about the overall result and the size of the winning party's majority in Parliament.
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