How do countries around the world deal with overseas voters?

Thea Ridley-Castle, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 8th December 2023

In October, legislation was introduced which would enable over 3 million more British citizens to vote. Wondering where the government have found 3 million extra voters? They’re the long-term UK diaspora, as the Guardian termed them.

These citizens have been living overseas for more than 15 years and new draft legislation, if passed, will allow them to vote from early 2024, which means they’re likely to be able to exercise their new right to vote in the next General Election.

Brief history of overseas enfranchisement

The Elections Act 2022 removed the 15-year limit on overseas voter registration (which came in in 2000). Overseas voting for those who had been living or working outside of the UK has been around in some form since 1985.

Before 1985, British people living abroad couldn’t vote in UK elections. The Representation of the People Act 1985, allowed citizens who were resident overseas to remain the electoral register for up to 5 years.

In 1988-89 a Bill was introduced to extend the franchise to those who has been resident outside the UK for 20 years. However, in 2002 Section 141 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was enacted, reducing this to 15 years. In December 2019 (the last General Election) 233,000 overseas voters were registered to vote, if the draft legislation goes ahead, the Government estimates number of overseas citizens eligible to register to vote will be close to 3.5 million.

As is the system now, these 3.5 million voters will have to register in the last seat they had a connection with.

How do other countries deal with overseas voters?

The main two ways in which countries deal with overseas voters are to have their vote counted in their last known constituency in the country or to use ‘overseas constituencies’.

Italy is an example of overseas constituencies being used. It has four overseas constituencies – one mega constituency that covers all Italians living in Europe, Russia, Turkey and Greenland; another for all of South America; one for all of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica; and a final one for Central and North America.

Many countries use special constituencies for overseas voters to mitigate several potential issues; overseas voters may have not been back to their home constituency in decades or no longer have any connection to the constituency; MPs don’t have much experience in dealing with issues specific to overseas citizens, and their issues may not be prioritised as the citizen is not in present in the local constituency, leaving overseas citizens sidelined.

Special constituencies ensure overseas voters are represented by someone who understands and is well-versed in issues which are specific to overseas citizens. In 2010 France enfranchised their overseas voters further by creating 11 overseas constituencies, each electing one member to the National Assembly.

So, what are the pros and cons?

Allowing all overseas citizens to vote will increase the franchise to include all British citizens, many argue that a democracy is not a full democracy until all citizens are enfranchised. It has been argued that overseas citizens still have a vested interested in the governance of the UK, for example some may continue to pay tax here, or have the right to access state pensions, or have dependents and family living in the UK which they care for. Therefore, it is said they should have the right to vote in a country which they have strong ties to and citizenship of.

Conversely, arguments in opposition to extending the franchise to British citizens overseas include the risk of foreign money, and therefore power and influence, making their way into elections via donations from citizens overseas. They also note that citizens who are living overseas are far removed from the country and the day-to-day experience of living there, thus their priorities will be different from voters in Britain. As a long-term resident of a foreign country, they will be integrated in the country they have chosen to live in, and their daily lives are more greatly impacted by the decisions made in that country.

What do you think?

The Electoral Reform Society doesn’t have a position on whether British citizens living abroad should be able to vote for 5, 20, 15 years or for life. Sadly, many of these voters will spend some considerable time trying to prove their connection to a seat they left decades before, only cast their ballot in a safe seat where their votes will make no difference – due to First Past the Post.

We are concerned though about the risks of foreign money using long-term foreign resident voters as a backdoor to influence our democracy. We’ve also noted the irony of ‘vouching’ being good enough to join the electoral register, but not to cast a vote.

But what do you think? Should all British citizens get the vote no matter where they live?

What do you think?

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