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UK expats challenge voting block in EU referendum

A legal challenge will be launched on Wednesday, which could see voting rights in the Brexit referendum granted to British expats in France who have lived abroad for over 15 years.

UK expats challenge voting block in EU referendum
Photo: AFP

Currently, expats who have not been resident in the UK for over 15 years are ineligible to vote in general elections. Despite hope that the restriction would be ditched for the referendum, it remains in place, much to the anger of long-term expats.

This group is estimated to number 2.2 million – almost half of the 5 million Britons currently living abroad. There is no exact figure on the number of Brits living in France who will be unable to vote, but unofficial estimates put the number around one third of the 130,000 expats, officially registered in France.

Lawyers will lodge the claim at Britain's High Court on Wednesday, acting on behalf of a group of expats, which includes pensioners’ rights campaigner Brian Cave, who lives in France, and 94-year-old war veteran Harry Shindler, who lives in Italy and has previously petitioned the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) about the law.

The group argues that the EU Referendum Act, which gives votes to groups who are not normally permitted to vote in UK general elections including Irish and Commonwealth citizens living resident in Gibraltar, but excludes long-term expats in Europe, is a breach of their rights.

“Our clients are being penalized for exercising their EU free movement rights,” said lawyer Richard Stein from firm Leigh Day. “The people it arbitrarily excludes are those UK citizens who are among those most likely to be affected by the decision taken by voters in this referendum.”

“Not to allow them to vote on the decision whether the UK remains part of the EU is unlawful and we have asked the court to deal with the issues urgently so that the act can be amended before the June date, to include all UK citizens residing in the EU for however long.”

The case if successful could have a huge impact on preparations for Britain’s EU referendum on June 23rd.

At the last general election in 2015, 106,000 Brits who had been resident abroad for less than 15 years registered to vote.

While expatriates who have lived abroad long-term may not be significantly affected by the results of general or local UK elections, the Brexit referendum would have a huge impact on their lives.

At the last UK general election, David Cameron’s Conservative Party pledged to “introduce votes for life, scrapping the rule that bars British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting”. However, this change will not come into force before the referendum.

Christopher Chantrey, who heads the British Community Committee of France (BCC) said all hopes were pinned on Wednesday's legal challenge.

“This appears to be our last shot. It's so important that we should have the vote on a question that affects the livelihoods of so many British people.

“The truth is the government should have sorted this already. They have had time and it should have been done.

“But they're attitude towards the millions of expats living abroad is “out of sight, out of mind”.

If successful, the referendum scheduled for late June may have to be delayed while the extra names are added to the electoral register.

If you are a British expat and have been living in France for less than 15 years, you can vote in the EU referendum on June 23rd. To register CLICK HERE.

Alternatively if you've been abroad for 15 years and are disenfranchised, then you can sign the petition to give all expats the vote.

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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