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BREXIT VOTE

EUROPEAN UNION

Has bureaucracy deprived Brits abroad of their vote?

Thousands of British voters abroad might find their vote in this week's crucial referendum is wasted, after some local councils left sending out ballots until the last minute and some post offices on the continent refused to accept ballots, says George Cunningham,

Has bureaucracy deprived Brits abroad of their vote?
George Cunningham warns that many Brits abroad will have missed the chance to vote.

Around 300,000 expat Brits have registered to vote in the EU Referendum on 23rd June, three times as many as for the 2015 General Election. While this is a partial validation of the Electoral Commission’s voter registration drive, successful registration is not the same thing as successful voting.

As we’ve noted before, local British councils need to ensure overseas voters actually receive their postal ballots in time to send them back before polls close in the UK on 23rd June. The debacle of the 2015 General Election is still fresh in many minds, when many ballots were sent out late.

So we asked our Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrat members (in 22 countries) who were allowed to vote to monitor whether they received their postal votes without any glitch.

First the good news. Based on our anecdotal feedback, ballots had been received successfully from 15 local councils two weeks before the referendum: Lewisham (London); Hammersmith (London), Fulham (London), City of Westminster (London); Greenwich, South Norfolk; Poole (Dorset); Lewes (Sussex); Daventry; Dover; Kensington (London); Swansea, Haringey (London); Rushcliffe, Shepway (Folkestone), Oxford and Nottingham City. 

Now the worrying. With less than a fortnight to go, ballots had not arrived with our members from at least three councils: Taunton (Somerset), Eastleigh (which was not sending out the individual’s ballot until 15th June!) and Kettering.

We’ve asked people to stay on the case and let us know when their ballots do arrive. I had to intervene personally with the British Embassy in Brussels in light of last week’s concern that pre-franked envelopes were not being accepted by a small number of post office counters in Belgium (and Germany). The Electoral Commission issued a statement reassuring that all internationally-franked envelops are acceptable but that news clearly sometimes does not filter through to local post offices. 

We are also encouraging Brits abroad to send their ballots back with extra stamps or even by registered post, particularly if their ballot is late arriving, as a member in Portugal’s did.

In the short term, there is really no excuse for councils to be slow about sending out the ballots of overseas voters. We know they are under-resourced and dealing with an unprecedented surge in voter registration. But this referendum hasn’t taken anyone by surprise. It’s been known about for months.

In the longer term, if the Government moves ahead with its manifesto promise to lift the 15 year rule in time for the expected 2020 General Election, there needs to be a concerted effort to create a proper set of overseas constituencies, particularly important as the issues faced by expats are different from the ordinary Brit. 

The Government, Electoral Commission and local authorities all say they want to improve democratic participation. Well fine. But don’t make it difficult (or indeed impossible) for people who actually want to take part. 

Otherwise, it’s not democracy.

George Cunningham is Chair of Brits Abroad: Yes to Europe, a non-partisan 'get out the vote' initiative managed by the Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats. The campaign has a Facebook page with up-to-date news about the debate. More information on the Brussels and Europe Lib Dems referendum campaign can be found by clicking here.

 

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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