British expat loses court case over voting rights

by Ray Clancy on May 8, 2013

British expat loses court case over voting rights

British expat loses court case over voting rights

A British expat who took a test case to the European Court of Human Rights to try to secure the right to vote in UK general elections has lost the case. Harry Shindler, 93, has lived in Italy since he retired from the army in 1982 argued that he should be allowed to vote in UK elections as he still has strong ties to the country.

Currently anyone who has lived abroad for more than 15 years cannot vote in a general election in the UK but Shindler claimed that this breached his human rights. However, the court rules that it is entirely appropriate for the UK to have such conditions and said that there should always be ‘room for manoeuvre’ over eligibility for voting rights. It is an issue that is estimated to affect around a million British expats. The rules mean that expats can vote only in for general elections for a certain time but they can vote if they move back to the UK.

Many believe that no time limits should be imposed on UK citizens who live abroad. Like Shindler, they argue that they retain links with the UK such as bank accounts, pensions, and often homes that are rented out and therefore they need a say in the financial and political issues that can affect them. However, the ECHR said in its judgement said that this is not enough to have a ‘close connection’ to the UK.

Different countries in Europe have different rules about eligibility for general elections and the court said this should be allowed to continue. ‘Having regard to the significant burden which would be imposed if the UK were required to ascertain in every application to vote by a non-resident whether the individual had a sufficiently close connection to the country, the Court was satisfied that the general measure in this case promoted legal certainty and avoided problems of arbitrariness,’ the ruling said. It added that the ‘restriction imposed on Mr Shindler’s right to vote was proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued’.

The UK government has also argued in the past that there is not a huge demand from expats wanting to vote who are eligible to do so, saying that around 5.5 million UK citizens live abroad, but fewer than 13,000 had registered on UK electoral rolls by 2008. However, Votes for British Expats, an organisation set up to campaign for voting rights, pointed out that the United States, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and most other developed countries in the world, allow their expats to vote.

Quote from ExpatForum.com : “New to the forum so be gentle with me! My husband has got a job in Spain so we are moving out in April this yer – very excited! My question relates to voting rights – if we both become Spanish residents do we both lose the right to vote in UK elections? Do we gain the right to vote in Spanish general elections?”

Exceptions exist for the military, civil servants and British Council employees. But all other British expats, including English teachers at schools other than the British Council, lose the right to vote after 15 years abroad. ‘We believe that the UK should enable and encourage all its expat citizens, not just some of them, to participate fully in the political process in their home country, by giving them unrestricted voting rights in national elections, as in most other advanced democracies,’ a spokesman said.

Penelope Hearns, of a Cyprus expat group, said that many expats still contribute to the UK economy and should therefore be able to vote. ‘They buy British goods and services for consumption in their new homes abroad. Many expats visit the UK to visit family, friends and for other matters. Many expats visit British pubs abroad to view football matches and drink British beer for instance, which is imported from the UK,’ she explained.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

CheeseThief May 8, 2013 at 10:15 am

If you wanna vote so much, move back. No way should those sort of people be allowed to vote

Reply

D Gibbs May 19, 2014 at 6:25 am

UK expats should be allowed to vote for several reasons well beyond 15 years. Many – like me – have a property in the UK and despite using a proxy voter in national elections (2005, 2010) and the AV referendum (2011), I still cannot vote in local government or regional (Welsh Assembly) elections. My property is still subject to Council Tax, which is set by local government politicians, yet I cannot vote for the people who set this tax. Taxation without Representation? I seem to recall Americans having a revolution about that!

Many UK expats also pay UK tax in other forms e.g. they may have a car in the UK (road tax), pay a TV licence or be liable for Capital Gains Tax. They should have some say in how these are all set and in who sets the rate.

Having lived abroad for 14 years, my UK vote has nearly expired. I would like to continue voting after 2015, but UK law says I can’t. The right to vote is a civic responsibility which I would like to think I take seriously. Many British people abroad – driven by tax free lifestyles and better weather – often forget that Chartists and Suffragettes died for the vote in the 19th century. This apathy is shocking, especially when one considers that they are often the biggest whingers about life the UK. They never consider voting as a form of change.

The whole situation is not helped either by the UK embassies abroad or Westminster MPs. If British expats could vote in their embassies, there would undoubtedly be more people voting. Other EU countries give their citizens this right, notably France and Bulgaria, but UK embassies deny their citizens this right, or are perhaps just too lazy or stingy to introduce it. Unless of course you are a Civil Servant who works in the UK Embassy, and then you can vote. Strange that?! Postal votes are practically impossible for expats outside of Europe. A proxy vote is the only option.

As for Westminster MPs, they are about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Who is going to take on an issue of people who are technically ‘outside’ their constituency? I have frequently mentioned this to my local MP, David Davies (Con-Monmouthshire). All I ever get in responses from him, is ‘I didn’t realise it was so difficult.’ It seems the law is very unlikely to change over this problem.

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