Should long term expats be given the right to vote?

Contributed by Gary Stringer, 04 February, 2014

Most laws need to be reassessed as times change and the law revoking British expatriates’ right to vote after living abroad for over 15 years is one such example. Being a member of the European Union, the UK should not be barring its citizens from continuing to vote in General Elections when other countries allow this as a basic extension of democracy.

Statistics have repeatedly demonstrated there is always a percentage of the population that does not exercise their right to vote. In the last General Election 35% of UK citizens did not vote. This may be for various reasons, but one might be a simple disinterest in national politics. In contrast, there are expatriates residing on the continent out of choice or due to work commitments who are avid followers of British politics and yet are deprived of a say in the elections once they have been living outside the UK for over 15 years.  

Recent news has revealed that expatriates who left the UK less than 15 years ago could be key in 2015’s General Election, with the government encouraging them to register to vote. The constituency of Thurrock is held by just a 92 vote majority and expat votes could potentially lead to the Tory party losing this seat.

Recent data on the 49 marginal constituencies has revealed that less than 30,000 extra votes would lead to all of these seats being occupied by different parties, which could have a huge bearing on the political landscape. Encouragement for these expats to vote seems extremely hypocritical, considering that expats living outside the UK for more than 15 years lose the right to vote. Essentially the question here is why somebody can vote in the general election 14 years after relocating, yet possess a redundant opinion during the next election, during which they would have lived abroad for just 18 years.

Moreover, revoking expats’ right to vote after 15 years may result in them losing the right to vote altogether. If an expat chooses not to become a citizen of their adopted new home nation, they will then lose the power to vote in any form of governmental election and this, in many ways, removes a simple democratic right.

Fortunately for expats in this position, Harry Shindler is not taking the matter lying down and is fighting for expats who’ve lived abroad for more than 15 years to retain the right to vote. Shindler is a 91 year old expat who has lived in Italy for more than 30 years, where he relocated after retiring from his position with the British army to live with his Italian wife. He was recently honoured with an MBE for his work in locating the graves of deceased servicemen and those listed as missing in action during the Second World War.

Shindler recently fought for his cause in a hearing with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but the case has been rejected twice. He has pledged to continue his fight for democracy and will next turn to the United Nations’ Court of International Justice. This will certainly be music to the ears of expats who have lost the right to vote.

Critics have suggested the 15 year limit was an arbitrary choice, as it fails to serve an actual purpose. In a world that continues to grow and form interconnected bonds, a law which states once a period of time has elapsed people fall out of touch with their roots is fairly nonsensical. 

The ECHR’s argument is that after living in a foreign nation for more than 15 years, expats no longer possess sufficient ties to the UK to warrant a say in how the country is run. Fundamentally this is wrong, as many expats often have property, pensions, bank accounts, businesses and family back in the UK. Taking this into account, it is fair to say that decisions made by the government are certainly likely to have an impact on the welfare of expats in these positions.

Only time will tell how this story pans out, but perhaps the time has come to allow those who care deeply about their country to continue having a say regardless of petty time frames.

Tags: business | interest | Europe | expatriates | pensions | Italy | law |



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