Enfranchising British nationals living abroad

Ballot-Paper-300x150Earlier this year, I chaired a cross-party group of parliamentarians to examine the problem of non-registration of British nationals who live abroad.  About 5.5 million British citizens are believed to live outside the UK and of these about 3 million are estimated to be eligible to register to vote.  Fewer than 1% are registered.  In March, we published a report making various recommendations as to how to encourage expatriates to register and to exercise their right to vote.

On Wednesday, I led a short debate in Grand Committee on the report.  I was supported by Lords Tyler and Lexden, Viscount Astor and, for the Opposition, Lord Kennedy.  For the Government, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, devoted most of his time on what he called ‘cautionary remarks’, rather than engaging with the report and the recommendations.  There have been some advances, but there is still more to be done.  Given the minister’s failure to pursue positively with what we had to say, we have decided to reconvene the group and do a follow-up report.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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15 Responses to Enfranchising British nationals living abroad

  1. tizres says:

    Lord Wallace of Saltaire includes in his reply:

    ” In the parallel debates on whether we should lower the voting age to 16, including overseas voters, I recognise some undercover thoughts from different parties about whom these extra bits of constituencies might be most likely to vote for. I need not say any more than that…”

    I have no idea what he’s alluding to (and it was only 5:30pm): I would be most grateful for some clarity.

    Thank you again, Lord Norton, for pursuing this and engaging with colleagues.

    • Lord Norton says:

      tizres: I think only the minister can provide clarity as to what he was talking about! I am not sure what ‘undercover thoughts’ he had in mind. They are perhaps so undercover that they are not visible to others…

  2. seanjm72 says:

    I tried to vote in the first election held after I had left the UK …the process was so difficult and timely that it would be nearly impossible to vote , it involved postal request for a ballot being retuned by post which then needed returning by post …I just didn’t bother !

    • Lord Norton says:

      seanjm72: We received similar comments from other British nationals living abroad. The problems encountered by those who wanted to vote, but found it so difficult that they gave up or were not able to get their ballot papers back in time, were remarkable As we acknowledge in the report, there have been some improvements, which make it easier to vote, but we still have the problem of ensuring people do register to vote.

  3. maude elwes says:

    From my point of view there is too much ‘undercover’ in Westminster altogether. And this encompasses all matters foreign.

    Those who want to vote in British elections should make arrangements prior to spending time working or living abroad. And once they become a citizen of another country, they have no business voting in our elections at all. Only British citizens who have lived in the UK long enough to understand what they want to be voting for should have that privilege.

    And to take that one step further, should be required to produce passports at the polling station. Where security following the ballot boxes from place of poll to counting house is mandatory. And from there on, film the count by outsiders in order to end rigged voting. As, most of us have no trust in our voting practices today.

  4. tizres says:

    Maude, you seem to be mixing up citizenship with residency; a British citizen is a British citizen, regardless of where they live. Their right to vote in a British general election, however, is currently dependent on the unfathomable time limit of taking up residency outside of the UK, whether intended to be temporary or permanent.

    Of course, there is already a time limit before British citizens, wherever they live, can vote: it’s called the age of majority.

  5. maude elwes says:

    Ah, but Tizres, a British citizen is not a British citizen when they are a national of another country. Example, I had an acquaintance who is an American. He remained a US national and carried a US passport. No, not dual nationality. Did not want to become a British citizen or national of the UK and had been living here for more than 20 years. Yet, he was able to vote, if he chose to, as he was on the Council Tax register. You may well say he shouldn’t have used it, and he did not. However, hundreds of these voting cards go out to those on council tax registration who are not British nationals. As it does to a few Japanese people I knew, who also do not want to give up their Japanese passport by becoming British. Japan does not accept dual nationality. Yet, they live and work here. Doesn’t make them British nor does it make them have a right to vote.

    It’s a scandal what goes on with thousands of postal votes collected by organisations who list many wives and relatives of those registered so they can vote erroneously for a candidate they have been ‘ordered’ to help the cause. Tower Hamlets would be an obvious place to start checking.

    Much like the one I saw over the weekend on the Politics show, pushing for more immigration and more rights for his particular group of countrymen. I watched with enormous interest as he is, of course, another ‘unelected’ and ‘unelectable’ Lord. Another shove in that looked as dodgy as a none bob note.

    Don’t be so naive. The British are taken for clowns throughout the ‘Empire.’ We are an amusing bunch to the world.

  6. Lord Norton,

    I am also addressing Lady Tizres and Maude Elwes in their conversation here. I think the European Union era has induced a more accessible electoral culture to its members and the world. Traditionally, Americans abroad had to get Absentees ballots from their States before leaving or by mail and often had to cast ballots only in a US embassy in practice. When I was in China that was realistically the model and I missed the only Presidential election I have ever missed since I started voting. The newer system was out to some degree but not functioning well. Embassies also carried and may still carry forms from all states and other jurisdictions for various votes so imperfect papers could be arranged. The Presidential Vote at the Embassy to the Court of St. James is something of a tradition — most embassies do less to make the event a celebration for ex-pats. The current situation may be easier but is not necessarily easy.

    The United Mexican States on the other hand forbid all electioneering abroad and also disallow voting for all but Presidential elections and this has been made clearer since the reforms of 2005. But on the other hand they create a central clearinghouse expert in all the issues of international voters and the unique problems of federalism. Now ex-pats can deal directly with their own agency which still preserves the system of the constitution by sending the ballot to the proper authorities in time to be processed there.
    I am interested to see how the British will approach this issue. I have known many British ex-pats and their employers and although I am not in close contact with many of them that has more to do with my my life in recent years than anything else. Much of my blog is about voting information for those in my own jurisdiction.

    I think providing votes to ex-pats is far more important than it used to be. More citizens live abroad and it matters more than ever.

  7. Tizres,
    Perhaps a dialect difference intervenes here. “It matters” more would indicate that it has always mattered. In the sentence prior I say “it is far more important”. That is because it used to be patently obvious that doing anything back home was blisteringly difficult. Letters came and went in an unreliable fashion and telegrams were a bit like coats of arms in being much interpretation for very little information. But today you and I have the chance to have this and other conversations. Therefore sovereign polities should be able to make it possible for us to vote if we are visiting one another. It is an adjustment to the new realities of things. The ancient Greeks voted by tribe for centuries after the polity had replaced the tribe as a governing body and in many other functions. Federalism grew up in part so that If Ionians, Arcadians and Dorians were the majority in each of three cities that could agree that the one or ten Arcadians or Ionians would not have a two to one majority over the three thousand Dorians in a “plethos”. The Dorians would agree to regulate voting behavior in exchange for the same being done in other cities. It would be a long time before voting decided by tribal majority (the majority of each tribe present in any legitimate Plethos made one super vote and these electoral votes not the popular votes determined all but tedious petty business and procedural elections) would really be phased out. In the same way, we cannot pretend all the documents, laws and jurisdictions do not matter but we can try to find ways to keep the sense of justice in times different than those which created our electoral institutions.

  8. maude elwes says:


    The person I made comment of no longer resides in the UK. And I thought I made it clear he did not use the polling card. He was simply amused by it. However, if you are on the ground and go to visit a person living in some kind of multi people dwelling house in London or city you will find polling cards in mass lying on the hall floor or tables for people who either never existed in that property or have long since left. It’s a scam. And well known by the lowly like me.

    Legal or illegal doesn’t come into it. The cards go out and I know for certain the American acquaintance did not apply to be placed on the electoral roll, ever. The odd thing here is, it is common knowledge in student households and has been for decades. Nothing new. Hence the requirement to have ID at polling stations should be mandatory. Fraud is big business in these matters and should be taken far more seriously than it is in elections. Has it never occurred to you how odd it is some people are elected to MP when they present so poorly and have their eyes so close together you wonder how on earth did they manage to get through selection much less voted in? Some who turn up on TV, particularly recently give severe scratch head moments when you see their inability to discuss let alone have knowledge about what they are supposed to be expert on. Can only mean one thing. Fraud at polls.

    • tizres says:

      Maude, I do take your point that fraud happens, and happens at various stages of the voting process. Given the size of the vote from ex-pats around the world, one might deduce that fraud isn’t widespread outside of the UK, yet the process for them is made much more difficult (if they knew they could vote in the first place). There is a balance to be struck, wherever one resides, between encouraging voting and accessibility, and preventing fraud.This report, dated January 2014, assesses the risks and the benefits, and concludes with recommendations:

      I am rather stunned by your theory that MPs who are not as slick as, say, Chuka Umunna only managed to get elected by fraudulent voting. You know that’s not true. Don’t you?

      • maude elwes says:

        LOL, Tizres, now there is a poke I may deserve. He not being a favourite of mine by any stretch of the imagination. In fact far too slick for any political office. I feel we have enough spivs to cope with in that area already. An no I don’t know that’s not true. How can anyone of us know what is true or not in the land of Oz called parliament.. Never trust a politician.

        Actually my idea of following the ballot boxes from polling station to counting house was to do with Dromey and the fact that previous boxes to do with him were suspect, if my recollection serves me well. And now we see another fiddle so shove him into a safe seat in East London. Very dodgy, which is why there should never be such a ‘commodity’ as a safe seat. They don’t deserve tax payers money for one much less two. That is ludicrous as no point to vote if you live there under those circumstances. However, they believe there will be no threat in that location from UKIP.


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