Extend the franchise for overseas citizens – but let’s have votes at 16 too

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 24th May 2016

Last week’s Queen’s Speech – the legislative agenda for the next year – contained an interesting and largely overlooked reform in the ‘small print’ (see pages 62-63): the government is planning to scrap the arguably somewhat-arbitrary 15-year time limit on overseas citizens’ ability to vote.

It’s being debated in the House of Lords today, and we think it’s a welcome intention – after all, there is no time limit on citizenship, so there shouldn’t be one for the franchise either. So this is a positive extension of the franchise that recognises that.

Overseas voters – wherever they are in the world – are affected by UK government decisions, no matter how long they have been away; from pensions and benefits to foreign policy, travel and British embassies. They should have a right to vote on who makes decisions on their behalf when it comes to these and many more issues.

Yet overseas voters are woefully under-registered – just a few dozen thousand out of the potentially five million British citizens abroad (no one really knows the true figure) are signed up to vote. Thankfully, the Electoral Commission’s voter registration drive among overseas citizens is an important part of reaching the ‘missing millions’ of citizens not on the register, whether at home or abroad – something we have campaigned on as an organisation for many years. It’s reassuring to see registration figures went up from just a few dozen thousand to 200,000 – although of course that’s still just a fraction of the total number of overseas citizens. It’s takes just five minutes to register online from anywhere in the world – meaning every citizen can and should be able to have their say, wherever they happen to be.

But as well as extending the franchise overseas, we want to see the government extend it at home too – to the 1.5m 16 and 17 year olds in the UK. Those educated citizens deserve a say in the constitutional future of their country – a major decision that will affect their lives.

We already know having votes for 16 and 17 year olds works. They threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Scottish referendum, with 75% voting and 97% saying they would vote in future elections. Even those opposed to extending the franchise for the referendum now agree that they participated with enthusiasm and made valuable contributions to the debate.

There’s a widening gulf between people and politics which we can help reverse. Lowering the franchise age is vital to nurturing more active citizens for future health of our democracy.

So we hope that, as well as opening up voting to overseas citizens, the government let 16 and 17 year olds – many of whom can already vote in Scottish elections – become active members of our democracy in the future.

Correction: This blog originally said the deadline for overseas citizens to register has passed. In fact, the deadline for registering to vote is the 7th June. As the Electoral Commission note: “While we were encouraging overseas UK citizens to register to vote by 16 May if they wanted to vote by post, to leave time for them to apply for a postal vote and then be able to receive and return it to the UK, the deadline for registering to votefrom overseas is the same as in the UK, that is 7 June. We’re still encouraging expats to register to vote, but advising that they consider voting by proxy instead.”

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