Three million more Britons will gain the right to vote
Advocates claim British citizens are about to get their ‘last democratic right’ with the passing of the Elections Bill through Parliament. Among other functions, the bill will give approximately 3 million British citizens living abroad the right to vote in UK elections.
At the moment, British citizens living abroad are only eligible to vote here for 15 years after leaving the UK. Their vote is cast in the constituency where their last UK address was located and they are required to re-register on an annual basis.
France has eleven separate constituencies that cover French citizens living abroad. The UK Government does not support the creation of ‘overseas constituencies’ for British citizens living abroad, however, concerningly, the boundary commission has not taken into account new overseas voter estimates in the boundary review which could impact at least 14 constituencies being over the new population sizes.
The Election Bill will now make British citizens living abroad eligible to vote for life, no matter how long they have lived out of the country for. Overseas voters will only have to re-register every three years. This ‘vote for life’ policy has been in the last three Conservative manifestos.
An estimated 30 constituencies may be notably affected by these electoral reforms. Tom Brake, Director of Unlock Democracy and former Liberal Democrat MP is concerned that the Bill may allow overseas voters to make a ‘declaration of local connection’ to any constituency in the country, and that there is no clear means of checking these connections. The Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) reported that overseas electors have been known to register to random addresses that they have no past connection or link to.
The size of the overseas electorate varies dramatically between constituencies. Unsurprisingly, London constituencies have a greater number of overseas electors. Indeed the constituency that had the most registered overseas voters in England and Wales in 2020 was Islington South and Finsbury (1,459). The constituency of Preseli Pembrokeshire in Wales had the fewest with no overseas electors, according to ONS data. Overseas voters are disproportionately attached to more affluent constituencies. There is evidence to suggest they are more likely to vote Labour, according to William Carter of Labour List. Research by Dr Susan Collard (University of Sussex) also agrees that overseas voters are more likely to vote for Labour. Interestingly, the Labour Party has historically targeted overseas voters more than the Conservatives.
There are challenges not only for political parties in communicating with overseas voters, but also cost implications and logistical issues that the Electoral Commission encounters when dealing with them. The deadline for voters to register for an election is eleven days before the ballot. This leaves little time for councils to send a ballot paper abroad, let alone for an overseas voter to post this ballot back to the UK. Election administrators have highlighted that registering overseas voters requires a disproportionate amount of staff time. Having a far greater number of eligible voters overseas will pose challenges for the Electoral Commission, in particular, if a snap election is called.
There are roughly 5 million Britons living abroad, of whom approximately 4.3 million are of voting age. Currently, the number of British citizens abroad who actually register to vote is only a small percentage of those eligible to register. In 2003, only 7,850 British citizens living overseas were registered to vote in England and Wales. In 2010, this rose to 35,000. Numbers increased dramatically during the Brexit debate. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of overseas citizens that registered to vote more than doubled, with 248,664 overseas voters registered to English and Welsh constituencies in 2016. 285,000 British citizens living abroad registered to vote before the 2017 snap election. This decreased in 2020 with 175,365 overseas voters registered to English and Welsh constituencies.
If the Election Bill, which currently is at committee stage in the House of Commons, is passed and receives royal assent, overseas voters will be an even more important and powerful part of the electorate. They have the potential, if communicated with correctly, to impact the election results in their UK constituencies.
Benjamin Peart is a Research and Communications Assistant at College Green Group