British people in France set to join legal action against UK over postal votes

British people living in France are among those planning to sue the UK government over widespread problems with postal ballots in the European elections.

British people in France set to join legal action against UK over postal votes
The European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: AFP

Citizens rights groups British in Europe and the3million – which represents EU citizens living in the UK – are planning to bring a joint legal action over problems with voting in the European elections.

Dozens of British people living in France who had registered for a postal vote allowing them to vote in the UK reported that their ballots either never arrived, or arrived too late for them to be send back to the UK in time to be counted.

READ ALSO Why British people in France may not be able to vote in European elections

At the same time, EU citizens living in the UK reported being turned away at polling booths, despite having registered in advance to vote.

A crowdfunding page set up on Saturday to cover the costs of legal action had raised £40,000 by the end of Sunday, double its initial target.

John Halford, of Bindmans LLP, who is representing the campaigners, said in a statement: “The right to vote is the foundation for all citizenship rights.

“Last Thursday saw a large scale, systematic, openly discriminatory denial of that right.

“The case we plan to bring will show that this is not something the law will tolerate and that there must be accountability and consequences.”

Jane Golding, Co-Chair of British in Europe said: “Only around 40 percent of British people living abroad can still vote in the UK and hundreds if not thousands of them will have been effectively disenfranchised in this vote, and previous national votes, by a combination of administration procedures that are not fit for purpose and the lack of resource to overcome them.

“Add into that no central body looking after our disapora and we have the perfect storm.

“It comes as no surprise whatsoever that postal votes have gone missing, arrived late or simply didn’t arrive at all because the UK’s attitude to its overseas voters is outdated and broken.

“Just applying similar rules to someone in Germany or Spain as someone who lives 100 metres away from their local council doesn’t make sense and then sending ballots out using the cheapest route when there is an imminent deadline is nothing short of reckless.”



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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.