In a few short hours, millions of people in the United Kingdom will be taking to the polls to (hopefully) decide who will be in charge of their country for the next five years. Except for perhaps some of the most astute political analysts, no one really knows what to expect tomorrow. Will Cameron be out? Will Clegg collapse? Will Ed form a coalition with Russell Brand?
But while various pundits will be focussed on voter turnouts and the overall result, thousands of eligible voters won’t be putting that all important X where it matters at all. Not because they don’t want to. Not because they forgot to turn up. And not even because they’re disenfranchised, don’t care and think their voice won’t count.
No, on May 7th potentially thousands will be left without the chance or choice to make their voice heard simply because they’re expats. Citizens of the United Kingdom, with UK passports, but not currently residing in the UK. And it’s that which will cost them their democratic voice come polling day. But not for the reasons you might think.
Computer Says No
The UK Government barraged me with endless targeted Facebook ads during the months of March and April 2015 with the cheery promise that it takes less than 5 minutes to register to vote. It actually took me almost SIX MONTHS of correspondence, phone calls and three separate attempts to register online before my name was successfully added to the electoral register. The cause of this problem? Apparently “I don’t know where I was last registered to vote” was not a valid option on the online registration, especially when trying to procure a postal vote as an expat.
The simple truth was, due to having been a student for a rather large chunk of the last decade and having moved house every 9 months or so during that time, I couldn’t actually remember where I had last been listed on the electoral register. Add the fact that my parents, who kindly provide me with a fixed UK address and a bed to stay in when I pop back, moved house last year and subsequently moved constituency. Together, these problems somewhat hindered my application. Eventually, with mere weeks until the last possible chance to register, my only option was a sudden “return” to the UK from being abroad before promptly “leaving” once again and applying for a postal vote registered to the address my parents now call home.
But I wasn’t alone in my struggle. British expats experience an array of challenges to be able to claim what is legally still their right up to 15 years of living outside of the UK. Some simply can’t register because they were never registered when they lived in the UK. Now I understand that if a person in their 40s suddenly decides that, despite never voting when living in the UK, they now want to do so, it could create a bit of an ethical dilemma. But what about the young 19 year old who wants to exercise his right to vote but whose family left the UK when he was 15 and thus he had not been on the electoral register before he left? Is he simply not allowed to vote? The chances are he can’t vote in the country he lives in either and so we create another disenfranchised youth who now may never vote.
Oh Where Is My Ballot Paper?
If you think that once registered all your problems as an expat attempting to vote in a General Election at home are over, think again. Once you’ve jumped the registration hurdle, you fall straight into the mercy of the postal service.
In the last seven days my Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with posts from British friends and acquaintances who, for various reasons, find themselves currently living outside of UK shores. Being, mostly, young, active, politically aware types, they were actually organised. They’ve registered their desire to vote and secured their postal vote application. It’s at this point they hit a problem. A problem I call “Oh Where Is My Ballot Paper?”.
Due to the rule of not sending out postal ballots until 20 days before the Election and the fact that they have to be returned by 10pm on polling day, friends in various locations around the globe didn’t receive their postal ballots until the chance to post it back to the UK in time had long since passed. Several friends in the States reportedly didn’t receive their ballots until the possibility of returning it in time was long gone. But it’s not limited to those facing a long haul flight to return home. Another acquaintance, this time in the Czech Republic, is still to receive her postal ballot. In fact, her outburst on social media to this affect a few short days ago bought forward several others, also living in Europe, also without their ballots.
Surely, when we’re considering something as important as the voting right of citizens, creating such a tight turnaround is placing rather too much faith in the world’s postal services? I mean I have friends who still haven’t received Christmas gifts I posted months ago.* And don’t even get me started on the wondering whether my postal vote will actually arrive back in the UK in time.
*that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
So now, as Polling Day dawns, anyone who knows even the tiniest bit about British Politics right now, knows that 2015 is going to be close.
But one thing’s for sure, thousands of expats will anxiously watch the results, frustrated, angry or just despondent that, despite their best efforts, this time their voice won’t be heard. And the money the UK Government/electoral office spent on targeted Facebook ads to encourage British Expats to register was, it would seem, a little bit redundant.