/Brits overseas scramble to arrange to vote

Brits overseas scramble to arrange to vote

LONDON — Brits living abroad are scrambling to arrange proxy votes for December’s U.K. election to avoid ballots getting lost in the post.

Several local councils have written to voters based overseas urging them to find someone in the U.K. to vote on their behalf in the December 12 poll.

British citizens can vote for up to 15 years after leaving the country, either by post, or by appointing a U.K.-based proxy to cast their ballot in person or by post on their behalf. They cannot cast their vote at a U.K. Embassy or consulate.

Problems with the system became apparent in the May 2019 European election, which the U.K. did not expect to take part in until Brexit was delayed at the last minute. Overseas voters complained of being disenfranchised when postal ballots did not arrive on time.

Several councils anticipated that the problem would rear its head again and wrote to voters before the December 12 snap election was called.

“The fundamental part of holding any kind of democratic election should be to make sure that all eligible voters are able to vote” — Victoria Forster, a British cancer researcher living in Toronto

“Past performance of postal votes going overseas has not been great. Sometimes they arrive too late,” Lewisham Council in south London wrote to overseas voters in September. “Given the tight timetable for a snap election we do not recommend a postal vote unless you have 100 percent confidence in the postal service.”

Ballots cannot be printed and distributed until the list of candidates is finalized — and for the December 12 election, that will be after the deadline for candidate nominations on November 14.

To make matters worse, 97 per cent of postal workers voted in favor of strike action last month in a dispute with Royal Mail bosses over pay and conditions. If the strike went ahead before the election, it could jeopardize the delivery of postal votes though Royal Mail has said it would prioritize general election mail in the event of industrial action.

According to data from the House of Commons library, a record 285,000 voters based overseas registered in the 2017 snap election.

Disenfranchised

Simon Storvik-Green, a former Lewisham resident who now lives in Brussels, registered for a postal vote in the Lewisham East by-election but never got to cast it. “My polling card did not arrive until a couple of days after the election had taken place,” he said. “I felt angry and disenfranchised, and when I tried to organize an emergency proxy, I was told this was not possible as a ‘postal vote had already been issued.’”

He has now arranged a proxy vote for the general election but feels lucky to have been able to. “It does feel like the U.K. government is deliberately trying to make it harder for overseas voters to cast their votes,” he said.

A polling station sign is seen in Croydon, south London. British citizens can vote for up to 15 years after leaving the country, either by post, or by appointing a U.K.-based proxy to cast their ballot on their behalf | Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Victoria Forster, a cancer researcher in Toronto, Canada, had just switched from a proxy vote to a postal vote when she received an email from Newcastle City Council. The council stressed that a snap election “may not allow much time for postal votes to reach oversea destinations. It will give you little time to respond and return your vote.”

Forster replied to the letter asking for her options, and decided to appoint her mother, who lives in Essex, to cast her postal vote on her behalf. “It’s quite shocking to me that this has become a problem for overseas voters,” she said. “I’m also very grateful to local electoral authorities that have had the foresight to see that this might be a problem.

“The fundamental part of holding any kind of democratic election should be to make sure that all eligible voters are able to vote. It’s a no-brainer,” Forster said.

Newcastle City Council said it had written to 553 overseas voters currently registered with it. “The snap election has created tighter than usual timescales for some oversea voters to cast their vote, and we have explained their options,” a spokesperson for the council said.

Islington Council in north London said it had contacted 1,700 overseas voters registered with it in September, and would write to them again if they did not sign up for a proxy.

The Electoral Commission has flagged the issues with the government. “We reported on the challenges of ensuring that all U.K. voters living overseas are able to participate in electoral events following the May polls this year,” a spokesperson said.

“We have made recommendations to the government about improving overseas electors’ access to the voting process, for example by voting at embassies and consulates, or the ability to download and print postal ballot papers,” the spokesman added.

“It’s really noticeable as someone who’s a citizen of both Australia and the U.K. how much easier and more sensible the Australian system is” — John Band, a strategy consultant from London

But as of yet, no changes have been made.

A 2017 government proposal to drop the 15-year time limit, allowing all Britons overseas to vote regardless of how long they have been based abroad, has also not made it through parliament.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “We continue to make the necessary preparations to support electoral administrators to deliver a smooth poll in December.”

“We have taken steps to help speed up the delivery of postal votes overseas and advise that they are sent back in good time, especially during a busy period for post as Christmas is. The government continues to support changes to make it easier for British expats to register and participate in U.K. parliamentary elections, however, it has not been possible to pass such legislation in this parliament.”

Australian system

In its queen’s speech passed last month, the government outlined plans to require voters to bring ID to polling stations — something not currently required under U.K. law — and make those registered for a postal vote reapply every three years. There were no plans to make voting easier for overseas electors.

Councils are not required to write to their overseas voters recommending a proxy vote, and not all of them have done, even though the U.K.’s Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) recommends that all overseas voters apply for one. The British in Europe group, a coalition of U.K. citizens living in Europe, also strongly recommends applying for a proxy vote.

“The way the timetable is written doesn’t leave very much leeway when there is an unexpected poll,” said Laura Lock, deputy chief executive of the AEA. “There’s an awful lot to be done by a small number of people in a short space of time.”

John Band, a strategy consultant from London, has lived in Australia for nine years and has voted by post in every general election since 2010. But in September, Islington Council wrote to him that “there is a risk that overseas voters will not receive their postal ballot packs with enough time to return them to us by the close of poll.”

“It’s really noticeable as someone who’s a citizen of both Australia and the U.K. how much easier and more sensible the Australian system is,” Band said.

“The Australian government have voting centres in major population centres (you can go and cast your vote in London), allows voting several weeks in advance, and will accept postal votes as valid as long as they are postmarked by election day, even if they aren’t received until later. I think the U.K. should consider all of these options.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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