Calls to address democratic deficit as millions of UK overseas voters drop off the register

Author: Roger Casale



The Political and Constitutional Reform (PCRC)  Select Commitee has endorsed calls by New Europeans for Government to address mass under-representation of UK overseas voters

Over 5.5 m British citizens live outside the UK but only a tiny proportion (15,848) are currently registered to vote. 

New Europeans are working with the Electoral Commission and with UK expat organisations to address the challenge of raising voter registration amongst UK expat voters before the General election in 2015.

We are also workign with Harry Shindler MBE and supporting Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP's campaign to end the 15 year rule.

UK expat voters would also have the right to vote in a referendum on UK membership of the EU if they are on the electoral register.

The PCRC's report drew attention to  New Europeans'  submissions on overseas voters and in particular our call for the abolition of the 15 year rule which disenfranchises UK voters if they have lived overseas for more than 15 years. 

Read New Europeans oral evidence (from para 880)

Read new Europeans written evidence here

 

On the New Europeans submission, the PCRC report said this:

Roger Casale, the Chair of New Europeans, told us that removing the 15-year rule, so that British citizens living abroad were eligible to vote in UK elections no matter how long they had been living abroad, could help increase registration rates of overseas voters. 

New Europeans questioned the justification for having a time limit on eligibility for overseas voters participating in UK elections, stating that British citizens remained connected to the UK, and continued to be affected by decisions taken in Westminster more than 15 years after they moved abroad. (Para.88, PCRC Voter engagement report).

The Committee also took submissions on this issue from the Electoral Commission, the BBC, the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) , the International Foundation for Elecotral Systems and Sam Gyimah (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office).

In response to these submissions, the PCRC made the following recommendations:

We expect to see a comprehensive plan from the Government in response to our Report, setting out how it plans to increase registration rates for overseas voters.

We recommend that, at a minimum, this includes using UK embassies to promote registration to British citizens living abroad, working with the BBC to put out information through BBC World and the World Service, and making changes to voting to make it more convenient to overseas voters. (Para. 90, PCRC Voter engagement report)

New Europeans will continue to work for the abolition of the 15 year rule. We will join veteran campaigner Harry Shindler MBE and Members of Parliament at a press conference at the House of Commons on 1 December to promote Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP's 10-minute rule bill. This bill will be presented to parliament on 2 December and aims to remove the 15 year limit.

Commenting on the Committee's report, Roger Casale said:

"We are delighted that the Committee has given such a powerful signal that something must be done to address the massive under-representation of UK overseas residents. New Europeans are working closely with the Electoral Commission to address the chronic omission of over 99.6% of UK expat voters from the UK electoral register (UK expats have the right to do if they have been away from the UK for less than 15 years). We will also continue to lobby government for an end to the 15 year rule. Our research has shown that this deters many UK expat voters from registering to vote."


Speaking from Mielan in France, Graham Richards, Votes for Expat Brits , said:

"This is indeed a very positive report, encouraging and taking into account the voting needs of all British citizens no matter where they now live in the world to register to vote and also pointing out the various problems that, in particular, British citizens now living overseas face including the very unfair 15 year cut off ruling. 

New Europeans must be given full credit for the additional awarenss they have raised amongst all expat campaign groups worldwide with their submissions to the PCRC . Ongoing working partnerships between groups like New Europeans and Votes for Expat Brits will overcome the various government prejudices against expat Brits like the 15 year rule."

Further details of our voter registration campaigns will be published shortly on our website .

 

We republish below the relevant paragraphs from the PCRC Voter engagement report

Overseas voters

85. British citizens who have been living abroad for fewer than 15 years, and were previously registered to vote in the UK, are eligible to vote in certain elections in the UK.

There have been two reliable estimates of the number of British nationals living abroad produced in recent years. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimated the total number of British citizens living overseas in 2006 at 5.5 million; a World Bank study put it at 4.7 million in 2011. Yet there were only 19,245 registered overseas electors in December 2012. While it is not possible to determine how many expatriates have been on an electoral register in the last fifteen years, and would therefore be eligible to vote, there is clearly a very big gap between the number eligible and those actually registered.

The Electoral Commission updated this information subsequently, stating that the most recent data, from February/March 2014, showed there were 15,818 overseas voters registered across Great Britain.This represents substantially less than 1% of the total number of British citizens living overseas.

86. Jenny Watson told us “it is unacceptable that there are so many people who could be registered who are not”, and that overseas votes are “one of the groups that we target specifically with our campaigns because they are under-registered.” The Electoral Commission staged an Overseas Voters Registration Day on 26 February 2014, and stated that it has worked “closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth (FCO) and others with overseas links, including the political parties, to use their networks to raise awareness.” When we spoke to Jenny Watson in September 2014, she told us that they would be running a further campaign ahead of the 2015 general election, and that they had set “a target that is aspirational of 100,000 overseas voters registering to vote.” She told us:

We are working with the kind of organisations that support people when they are moving overseas [...] to make it clear to them that they can stay on the electoral register, that this is how they go about doing it and to try to encourage as many of those people to stay on the register and indeed to become registered if they thought they did not stay registered once they have moved overseas. That is quite a focused programme of work and, as I think I said earlier, we do have—it is only part of the solution—an overseas registration day that does enable us to generate some kind of—they are a very disparate group and by their nature they are hard to reach. We are very dependent on consulates and embassies to have a form of contact with them and be able to be gatekeepers in encouraging people to stay registered to vote. 

One of the areas we discussed with representatives of the BBC was the possibility of putting some information on elections out via BBC World and the World Service, as a way of reaching overseas voters.

87. Jenny Watson told us that the bar to sending out postal ballot papers more than 11 days before the election had been removed, and that papers could go out around five days earlier than in the past, meaning that overseas voters had more time to cast their votes. Andrew Scallan, Director of Electoral Administration, also told us that the Electoral Commission had issued advice “that says priority should be given to overseas electors and to service voters to make sure that [their postal ballot papers] are issued as quickly as possible. Jenny Watson told us that the work of the Electoral Advisory Board, a board chaired by the Electoral Commission which is intended to be a focal point for those involved in the delivery of electoral services, about “how one might look at the role that technology might play in improving the process” could be relevant to the question of overseas voters. She stated:

Of course, one can quite quickly see that if there were one group of voters that might particularly benefit from some kind of difference in the operation of technology, perhaps because they could download their own ballot paper as soon as it was issued because it has a barcode that says it is genuine and they can send it back, that would make the process faster. That work will continue from our perspective after the next general election and we will be bringing forward some suggestions about what changes might take place.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems told us that allowing “voters to print their ballots online in PDF form and return by mail” would reduce turnaround time for the voting process, and that e-voting merited further consideration. The Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) also suggested how voting could be made more accessible for overseas voters, stating:

The most straightforward approach would be to introduce the options of on line applications for registration and for absent voting together with the option of e-voting by internet means. Clearly, the necessary safeguards to prevent fraudulent applications and misuse of votes would have to be introduced. A policy decision would need to be made in terms of the current restrictions including length of time abroad and to what elections such rights should apply. 

88. Roger Casale, the Chair of New Europeans, told us that removing the 15-year rule, so that British citizens living abroad were eligible to vote in UK elections no matter how long they had been living abroad, could help increase registration rates of overseas voters. New Europeans questioned the justification for having a time limit on eligibility for overseas voters participating in UK elections, stating that British citizens remained connected to the UK, and continued to be affected by decisions taken in Westminster more than 15 years after they moved abroad.

89. When we asked the Minister for the Constitution what was being done to reach overseas voters, he agreed that “overseas electors are some of the most under-represented on the electoral register” and told us:

[M]ore needs to be done to make sure they are represented on the electoral register. It is something that since I became the Minister I have asked officials to look into, to see what we can do in terms of the funds we are making available for maximising registration to target some of it at overseas voters.

90. Although British citizens are only entitled to register to vote for UK elections if they were resident in the UK in the previous 15 years, it is clear that only a very small percentage of those who are likely to be eligible to register to vote are actually on the electoral register. It is not acceptable that such a small proportion of this franchise is registered to vote, and we welcome the fact the Minister for the Constitution has asked officials to look into this issue. We expect to see a comprehensive plan from the Government in response to our Report, setting out how it plans to increase registration rates for overseas voters. We recommend that, at a minimum, this includes using UK embassies to promote registration to British citizens living abroad, working with the BBC to put out information through BBC World and the World Service, and making changes to voting to make it more convenient to overseas voters.

 

For a full copy of the report, click here

 

 


Roger Casale

About the Author

Roger Casale

Roger set up New Europeans and runs the initiative on a day-to-day basis.

He has experience in business, academia and politics both in the UK and internationally. He studied at Brasenose College Oxford and at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and holds a Master of Arts in International Affairs. He speaks Italian, German, French and a little Arabic. 

In 2009, he received the award of Commendatore dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana from the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano for services to British-Italian relations. He is a former Member of Parliament and Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign Office.

 

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Roger Casale

About the Author

Roger Casale

Roger set up New Europeans and runs the initiative on a day-to-day basis.

He has experience in business, academia and politics both in the UK and internationally. He studied at Brasenose College Oxford and at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and holds a Master of Arts in International Affairs. He speaks Italian, German, French and a little Arabic. 

In 2009, he received the award of Commendatore dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana from the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano for services to British-Italian relations. He is a former Member of Parliament and Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign Office.

 

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