08 October 2006

Expats Voting - The Top 1%?

As an expat, to be entitled to vote in the UK, you must have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years. I lived out of the UK between 2001 and 2003, but because I returned to the UK in 2003 my electoral clock was reset. I returned to Prague in August this year and so if I remain out of the UK I won’t lose my right to vote until August 2021. Although nobody can be sure of the numbers, it is estimated that there are at least 2.5million UK citizens living overseas who are entitled to vote. I am likely to return to the UK in the future, but even those who have no plans to return are likely to be affected by legislation especially in relation to UK foreign policy, taxation of UK assets and pension and other entitlements and do deserve to retain their electoral stake in society.

It is shocking that of this overseas population, just 17,500 (!) - less than 1% are registered to vote. When the Electoral Commission records turnout, it is based on registered voters not registrable voters. As they are a state body, I imagine it is probable that they are probably focused on turnout percentages, not registration numbers. The suspicion that they are uninterested in overseas voters is confirmed by the fact that in 2005 they spent just £9,000 on targeting the expat vote (and £705,000 on advertising focused on 18 to 24 year olds). The Conservative Party has undertaken initiatives to try to get overseas voters signed up - I understand that when they took an advertisement out in the overseas edition of the Daily Telegraph, they were overwhelmed with responses. This reveals a large appetite amongst overseas voters to remain involved. Private sector organisations based overseas are reluctant to be seen to be meddling in the democratic process. What is less understandable is the lack of interest from the MoD and the Foreign Office to assist their employees who are based overseas with exercising their democratic rights.


Manfarang said...

In fact the period was 20 years, but this government reduced it to 15.
The fact that someone lives overseas for many years does not mean that individual loses all contact with Britain.On the contrary,often the link with Britain will strengthen, especially in the age of the internet.
Citizens of the USA have the right to vote regardless of how long they have been away.I see no reason why Britons shouldn't enjoy the same right.

Andrew Kennedy said...

Correct me if I am wrong as the legislation might have changed, but I was a Conservative Party Agent when overseas registration was first introduced in 1989 and the widespread campaign to "sign-up" overseas voters was launched.

At that time, overseas voters had to register in the last constituency where they were they lived before leaving the UK. Also, due to the fact that ballot papers could not be sent abroad, applicants had to appoint a Proxy to vote on their behalf.

This created all sorts of difficulties:

1. Voters often had no emotional attachment to the last constituency where they were registered. Often they were there in rented property prior to leaving UK or just happened to move there due to work commitments. It was hard to motivate people to register to vote in a far away constituency which often meant very little.

2. Appointing a proxy was also a problem. Long term emigrants had often lost contact with neighbours
who could be asked to vote on their behalf. Old friends and family members where often unable to do so as the vote had to be cast in the constituency of last residence and although a "postal proxy" could be arranged, this required another set of forms and additional complications.

3. The application process itself was cumbersome. Overseas voters had to obtain and complete the application forms. They then had to identify proxies who (a) live near the relevant polling station back in UK or were willing to travel to vote, and (b) would vote the right way at the election. The application forms then had to be sent to the appointed proxy voters who had to sign a declaration of acceptance, and finally the forms then had to be forwarded to the relevant Electoral Registration Officer.

The Conservative Party tried to simplify the process by offering a "one stop shop" for registration.

We simply asked the applicant to sign the forms and give their final UK address. We then traced their old constituency, forwarded the application to the local Party Agent who would appoint proxies and send the paperwork to the ERO.

I seem to remember identifying 200 potential overseas voters by asking members and supporters to raid their address books. Yet despite offering a simplified registration system (and sending a reply paid envelope) fewer that 20 completed application forms were received.

The reluctance of UK overseas voters to register and use their vote amazes me, especially when it is compared to the massive registration and turnout figures for Americans abroad.

I would be interested in hearing if the application process has changed at all.

Manfarang said...

The Americans have very active overseas organisations of the Republican and Democrat Parties.
Having fixed election dates makes a big difference and the voters get to mark a ballot paper.
Of course, Americans living overseas must file a US Federal tax return,if they earn over a certain limit they have to pay tax.

Praguetory said...

Andrew - put in context, your 10% hit rate was excellent. I think that 200,000 registered overseas voters would be incredible. The internet has made the application process simpler, but it is still a little bureaucratic. Proxy is still the best way (because the postal route may not get the vote delivered in time), but you may now name anyone in the UK to be your proxy whether or not they live in your constituency. In practice going through a party is the best way to do it.