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The next Westminster election will be the first where every single British citizen living abroad will be entitled to vote – and donate to sway the election debate – no matter how long they have lived outside the country.
The abolition of the ‘15 year rule’ capping how long Brits retained the vote while living abroad means that an estimated extra two million people will be able to pick an MP, representing a constituency they may not have lived in for 50 years or more.
The Government estimates that the number of potential overseas voters following the introduction of the Overseas Electors measures will be between 3.2 and 3.3 million British citizens. The current electorate is around one million potential overseas voters.
Just over 230,000 people were registered as overseas voters at the 2019 general election, but that number is likely to triple. The Government’s Impact Assessment estimates that the proportion who will register to vote will be similar to those who could already vote abroad, which in 2017 and 2019 was 19%.
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The latest figures – which appear to be from 2017 – showed that 33% of all British-born emigrants living outside the UK in 2017 lived in Australia or New Zealand, 28% lived in the US or Canada and 26% in the EU – of which 6% lived in Ireland.
The Government estimates that the changes will cost £40m over the next 10 years.
How it Will Work
Overseas electors will be entitled to register in respect of the last place they were registered or, if they were never registered, the last place they were resident. This could be in any constituency in the UK. They must (attempt) to prove to a council Electoral Registration Officer that they used to live there to be added to the register.
However, if overseas electors lack documentary evidence of where they used to live in the UK, a UK resident voter can “attest” that they are telling the truth. The Government rejected a similar “attestation” mechanism for those who lack photo ID when voting in person in UK elections.
A recent Government paper revealed a “high degree of uncertainty” about the numbers who might register – and therefore the potential burden on local council electoral offices.
The Impact Assessment noted: “There is no official data on the number of British citizens living abroad. United Nations migration data and Office for National Statistics International Passenger Survey data have been used to estimate this…
“There is a high degree of uncertainty regarding the additional volumes of registration applications as a result of extending the overseas franchise to all British citizens who have been previously registered or resident in the UK.”
Offshore Cash Bonanza?
Fears have previously been raised about the lack of checks or restrictions on donations from abroad when this change came into force. British citizens who’ve lived outside of the UK – for example tax havens – for decades can now donate unlimited sums of money to UK parties and campaigns, as Byline Times has reported.
A Cabinet Office source claimed there are strict rules which explicitly prohibit foreign money being funnelled through permissible donors on behalf of impermissible donors, adding that political parties and campaigners must take “all reasonable steps” to verify the permissibility of a donation within 30 days. It is a criminal offence to purposefully evade these rules.
However, the chances of a successful criminal prosecution for an overseas voter breaking UK election rules seem very slim. Almost no one is likely to be extradited from their foreign residence to the UK amid an electoral law breach.
Tom Brake, director of reform group Unlock Democracy, told Byline Times: ‘With the potential for hundreds of thousands of UK citizens living abroad going onto the register for the first time, the government must do two things.
“Firstly, keep a watchful eye on marginal seats to ensure a disproportionate number of electors aren’t registering in seats that could be swung by a handful of votes. Secondly, act to block any possibility of illegal foreign or criminal donations leaching into party funds.
“That means requiring political parties to conduct money laundering checks on big donations and to ban unincorporated associations from donating to political campaigns.”
Unlock Democracy estimates that around 300,000 extra people may now vote in UK parliamentary elections, amounting to around 450 extra voters per seat. Twelve seats had majorities smaller than that in 2019.
However, the distribution of the overseas voters in terms of where they register is likely to be very uneven, and potentially skewed towards wealthier seats.
UK Parliament elections covers UK parliamentary general elections, UK parliamentary by-elections and recall petitions. Eligibility for other types of election has not changed.
On Tuesday, Cabinet Office minister Simon Hoare said the Conservative pledge to deliver “Votes for Life” had been delivered. “I am pleased to be able to inform the House that, as of today, the 15-year limit on overseas electors’ voting rights is abolished…British expatriates continue to have strong links with the United Kingdom. Decisions on foreign policy, Brexit and trade will directly affect their lives.
“Now that we have left the EU, it is more important than ever to strengthen our ties with the British expatriate community. We want all British citizens abroad to remain part of our democracy, and they should continue to have their say in UK Parliamentary elections.”
Some countries including France and Italy have international constituency seats in their parliaments to ensure they have dedicated representation – for example, expat seats in Parliament for those in the Americas, Asia, Africa and so on. Ministers have rejected a similar proposal for Westminster.
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