The Elections Act made easy

On 11 August, in celebration of ASEAN Day (8 August), the Libdems Overseas (LDO) group based in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia held a virtual meet-up with guest speaker, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. On the agenda was the very important topic of how to prepare Brits living abroad to register and vote in future general elections and national referendums.

The Act received the Royal Assent in April this year but is riddled with problems, and has yet to be brought into force by statutory instrument. It introduces amongst other things votes for life (including for those who have lived overseas for more than fifteen years) but also more stringent requirements for voting, such as photo-IDs for UK voters. This would disenfranchise about 9% of voters who currently do not possess one of the permissible forms of photo-ID. Student cards are apparently not acceptable, though pensioners Freedom passes are. The Act would also make it easier for political donations from abroad, though those over £500 would still have to be reported by the political party to the Electoral Commission.

It is therefore no surprise that Lord Wallace who led the Party in debates on the Bill has described it as a “nefarious piece of legislation”, “shabby and illiberal”. The Liberal Democrats had proposed two amendments to the Elections Bill in the House of Lords, neither of which were accepted by the UK Government:

  • A feasibility study leading to British citizens living abroad having their own overseas constituencies and Members of Parliament, as happens with France.
  • Overseas voters to be issued their ballots electronically either by email or downloaded to increase substantially the likelihood that their votes would arrive in time.

The Act says that overseas voters are entitled to be registered in the Constituency where they last voted or were living in. This is problematic in itself as local Councils vary in their efficiency, record keeping and ability to cope with queries. Proxy voters are also limited to holding a proxy vote of up to four people only.

During the Q&A a question was asked about whether one can register to vote in the UK e.g. where one has family here as well as overseas. Apparently, this is only possible for those who are only living abroad for a temporary period of time. Indeed, this might be difficult to prove as there is currently no national register of voters and some voters have more than one home and have been known to be registered in more than one constituency. On the positive side, voting registration can in future be effective for three years rather than for only one.

Lord Wallace also made the point that there are many marginal seats, i.e. in London, where the overseas votes could affect the result. In addition, with the frozen pensions debacle, something that LDO has been campaigning against, the Tories cannot assume that the three million plus overseas voters would be voting Conservative in future elections. Some London constituencies already have over one thousand registered overseas voters, in contrast to the handful registered in many rural seats. If we anticipate that the extension of overseas registration to lifetime will double the numbers registered, this will be enough to swing the result.

LDO will be preparing slides and presentations to help local parties communicate with their overseas constituents. Please get in touch if you would like our assistance.

* Merlene was co-founder of Chinese Liberal Democrats and on the executive of the LibDems Overseas. She co-edited “Rise of China – Fresh Insights and Observations” published by the Paddy Ashdown Forum (2021)

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3 Comments

  • Colin Bloodworth 15th Aug '22 - 2:38pm

    Indeed, it cannot be assumed that the new eligible voters will be voting Conservative, despite a common perception that Brits overseas are high-living tax-dodging fugitives. Speak to any of the half a million British retirees whose pensions have been frozen since they left the UK or from when they first took their pensions if they were already overseas. Despite many campaigns, successive Conservative governments have refused to address the issue and grant them the same rights as those in the UK or in certain countries that have reciprocal agreements. Even though, like their colleagues in the UK, they paid their National Insurance contributions in full during their working years.

    Next April, pensioners in the UK can look forward to an uprating of between 8% and 10% in their state pensions thanks to the triple lock, reflecting the rise in inflation in the UK this year. But half a million pensioners overseas can look forward only to the same raise they got last year and every year before, namely ……….. zero. Once they have the chance to vote, where are their votes likely to go?

  • Mick Taylor 15th Aug '22 - 3:29pm

    As one those who will in future be voting from abroad, I was most interested to learn where I can vote. The RO in Calderdale had no idea what the regulations would be when I asked her. I suspect that the regulations, when they eventually come out, may be somewhat different from your interpretation of the act. You can be sure they will be what most benefits the Tories.

  • Chris Platts 15th Aug '22 - 3:40pm

    While it is an excellent idea the delivery by local constituencies will mean it will be difficult to implement.I believe that the party can help roll out the registration,for those who have only just moved away from the UK I t will not be problem,it will be those who have lived outside the U.K.for 20 years plus it will be more problematic.As a party we need to put resources in place to enable people to register.

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