Friday, May 31, 2019

#DeniedMyVote - what happened?

In the European Parliament elections last week, a number of EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom reported that they were unable to vote here, finding that paperwork hadn't been processed, their names were crossed off the register and officials were telling them to vote in their "home country". What exactly happened and why?

I have to admit this is probably the most obscure part of election law in regards to registration. It only comes up at one election that comes along every five years and only applies to one small section of the electorate. Consequently it's not something well known about by political activists or often handed down from agent to agent. As a result the rationale behind the procedure is obscure, but this post is my best bet.

The arrangements seem to stem from EU law and work as follows:
  • All citizens of European Union member states who meet the other qualifying criteria (age, residency etc...) are eligible to vote for the European Parliament.
  • It is assumed as a default that they will be exercising their vote in their country of citizenship (called "home country", though many object to this term).
  • Those resident in other EU member states are assumed to still be exercising their franchise in their country of citizenship, whether by postal vote, voting locally at a facility run by their embassy or by travelling to their country of citizenship.
  • Those who wish to vote in their country of residence are required to make an additional declaration that they will be exercising their vote in their country of residence and not in their country of citizenship.
  • EU citizens resident in another country who qualify for that country's domestic franchise (in the case of the UK this is Cypriot, Irish and Maltese citizens including anyone with dual nationality with one of the other 24 EU member states) are treated as domestic, not EU, voters and so do not have to go through this process.
As set out in my previous post #DeniedMyVote - The position across the EU, at least most EU member states operate a system that requires EU citizens resident in them to take active steps in order to be able to transfer their European Parliament franchise to their country of residence. Some seem to incorporate it into general registration, some have a specific registration for EU citizens and/or European Parliament elections and some have a stand-alone procedure for existing voters on the register. The United Kingdom has the last method.

Thus an EU citizen resident in the United Kingdom has to complete an additional form. For voters in Great Britain this is the "European Union citizens – European Parliament voter registration form (GB)" known as the "UC1" form, though confusingly that term does not actually appear on the form making it harder to search for. For voters in Northern Ireland it's the "European Union citizens - European Parliament voter registration form (NI)" form or "EC6", a term which does actually appear on the form.

(Amongst the many confusions seen on this, frustratingly some British councils have been talking about "EC6" forms. I hope nobody was given the wrong one to fill in.)

It seems the form has to be returned to election authorities in the country of citizenship. With many countries having elections run at the municipal level, not just the United Kingdom, that's an awful lot of agencies involved to screw things up. It's not clear if the agency in the country of citizenship has to sign things off before the EU citizen can be added to the relevant roll at the other end, or if the local agency can go straight ahead. But this makes it impossible to set things up for people to sign at polling stations and vote there and then.

Much of the mess originates in this entire procedure being little known about and understood, rather bureaucratic (especially if the forms need to be processed at another agency in a different country before the EU citizen can be admitted to the local roll) and easy to mess up. It's also clear that a lot of confusion has been generated by people who don't know the difference between being on the register and having had the updated category allocated. Much of the wording is focused on the former and reports suggest many people inadvertently got confirmation of the wrong thing. Also there is no actual legal requirement for local election services to send out the forms to EU citizens on the register.

However many people report sending the forms in or even hand delivering them before the deadline yet finding they were not processed in time. This is a clear failing, although it's likely to impact at the local election services end.

The reason for people's names appearing crossed out on the register is clear. As explained in my previous post Who can vote for what bodies?, there is a joint electoral register covering six different categories of voters across combinations of three different franchises. When a voter is ineligible to vote in a particular election, their name is crossed out so they cannot vote polling stations but the staff can see the reason and explain.

Overall this system is cumbersome and a mess, but being an EU wide thing it seems hard to fix. Obviously leaving the EU will resolve it in an instance, but for other countries where similar problems have been reported there will probably need to be modifications to make the forms more directly accessible - maybe incorporating them into basic registration?

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