How the upcoming Elections Bill will cause chaos with EU citizens’ voting rights

'As it stands, the Elections Bill will disenfranchise countless citizens who do not qualify for the EU Settlement Scheme'.

Brexit anniversary

Maddy Dhesi is Media and Engagement lead on the Young European Network and Polish Migrants Organise for Change’s #OurHomeOurVote campaign for fairer local voting rights for migrants in England and Northern Ireland

Last year, the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments made some significant – and welcome – changes to their elections. Both nations  extended the franchise, with all residents given the right to vote.

So far, the UK Government is not following the devolved bodies’ example. Instead, the Elections Bill that is returning to Parliament on the 7th September proposes that only EU citizens who qualify for the EU Settlement scheme – by arriving before 31st December 2020 – would preserve voting rights in UK General and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. This creates a discrepancy for EU voters because future EU citizens that enter the UK would only be eligible to vote if they are from member states that have bilateral agreements with the UK. At the time of writing, the government has deals with just four countries: Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Poland.

Several EU countries already provide local voting rights to third country nationals, including British citizens. The UK government’s bilateral approach is a disproportionate response to this, especially after Wales and Scotland have legislated to make elections more accessible to migrants. As a result, the Young Europeans Network (YEN) and Polish Migrants Organise for Change (POMOC) are launching a campaign for an amendment to the Elections Bill that will implement residence based voting rights (RBVR) in local elections in England and Northern Ireland.

Using the Elections Bill to move local elections to a system of residence-based voting rights would allow all residents living in England and Northern Ireland to be able to vote. Without a residence-based voting system, eligibility for voting rights could vary wildly between EU citizens, creating unnecessary confusion and difficulties for all potential voters. If finding out whether or not you can vote is harder than voting, what motivation is there to vote? 

The Election Bill’s current proposals also detail that EU citizens will need to produce additional evidence on top of demonstrating status under the EU Settlement Scheme. It is unclear how this will be implemented in practice, but it would add an additional bureaucratic barrier to voter registration and participation.

Young voters – already underrepresented in politics – will be hit hard. As a young migrant living in Wales, Elizabeth Sweatman could vote in the May Senedd elections as a result of RBVR. “I was glad to be heard and included. It made me feel represented and part of the community in a way I hadn’t before. Shaping our future is important, no matter where you come from,” she said. Yet she will be denied a vote for her MP. The 18-34 turnout in the 2019 General Election was the lowest of all age demographics, and complex eligibility criteria for voters will only deter keen young voters. 

As it stands, the Elections Bill will disenfranchise countless citizens who do not qualify for the EU Settlement Scheme. The Bill proposes that only EU citizens who arrived in the UK before the end of the implementation period would keep their local election voting rights. This will create a situation where EU family members with pre settled or settled status may not be eligible to vote. The EU Settlement Scheme has provisions for joining family members reuniting after the end of the implementation period. These family members would be excluded from the franchise, despite being EU citizens with a status under the EU Settlement Scheme. 

London-based migrant, Juliane Camphana thinks migrants deserve the right to vote: “We work and pay taxes, we are part of society, and we also face the consequences of elections.”

Residence-based voting rights are the pragmatic solution to the mountain of confusion that would arise if the Elections Bill were to go ahead with its current proposals for EU citizen voter eligibility. It would mean somebody’s right to vote is not determined by arbitrary bilateral agreements or value of one’s citizenship, but by their residence and contributions in the UK. Migrants are a key part of British society – they should have a say in how services are run and the same access to the ballot box as anybody else living in the UK. 

The Young European Network and Polish Migrants Organise for Change’s #OurHomeOurVote campaign is campaigning for an amendment to the Elections Bill to make residence-based voting rights in England and Northern Ireland local elections a reality. 

Find out more about the campaign and get involved here.

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