Explained: Why are UK elections always on a Thursday?

Rishi Sunak has announced the general election will be held on 4 July and – as you might have guessed – this falls on a Thursday.

Speaking in the pouring rain outside No 10 on Wednesday, the prime minister said: “Earlier today I spoke with his majesty the King to ask for the dissolution of Parliament. The King has granted this request and we will have a general election on the 4th of July.”

While there is no actual law mandating that elections be held on Thursdays, this has been the custom for several decades now, and that typically includes voting in local as well as general elections and by-elections for individual seats.

How long have UK elections been held on Thursdays?

The last general election in the UK that wasn’t held on a Thursday took place on a Tuesday in October 1931.

At that time, the day used for elections jumped around quite a bit, though it was always a weekday.

The polling day was a Wednesday in November 1922 and a Thursday in December 1923.

In October 1924, it was back to Wednesday, and then it was on a Thursday in May 1929.

In 1935 the election was held on a Thursday, and it has been that way ever since.

Why are general elections held on Thursdays in Britain?

The choice of Thursday is more a tradition than a rule.

It was likely driven by social and cultural factors such as avoiding overlap with paydays on Fridays or religious activities on Sundays. By holding the election in midweek, voters could be distanced from the influence of pubs or churches.

In the past, Thursdays were market days in many towns and villages which meant more people were out and therefore likely to vote.

There’s also a view that voting on a Thursday facilitates efficient ballot counting, with most results typically available by Friday morning, and allows for a smooth transition of power. The prime minister gets the entire weekend to pick their cabinet, settle into Downing Street if newly elected and prepare to brief civil servants by Monday morning.

This schedule enables an orderly transition and minimises disruption to governance.

There have, however, been calls in recent years to shift the voting day to the weekend – as is the case in many countries around the world.

Professor Ailsa Henderson from the University of Edinburgh previously told the BBC a weekend vote would appeal to a lot of people.

“Allowing it on more than one day – where one is a weekday and one is on the weekend – you will probably maximise your turnout.”

But the idea has faced criticism, not least as it would entail a high cost of overtime for election staff.