House of Commons Library

Overseas voters

Published Tuesday, March 8, 2016

British citizens living overseas are entitled to be registered to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years in the constituency they were registered in before leaving the UK. After the general election the Government indicated that it would bring forward a Votes for Life Bill; this Bill has not yet been introduced but the Government indicated that its provisions would end the 15 year rule. This Briefing Paper provides details of the provisions relating to overseas voters in the Representation of the People Act 1985 and of earlier attempts to change the 15 year rule.

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British citizens living overseas are entitled to be registered to vote in UK Parliamentary elections for up to 15 years in the constituency they were registered in before leaving the UK. They will also be able to vote in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016. Overseas voters are not entitled to vote in UK local elections or elections to the devolved assemblies.

After the general election the Government indicated that it would bring forward a Votes for Life Bill in the Queen’s Speech of 27 May 2015. This Bill has not yet been introduced but the Government indicated that its provisions would end the 15 year rule: make it easier for overseas voters to cast their votes in time for them to be counted and allow for the secure and accessible registration of overseas voters.

Harry Shindler, a British citizen who has lived in Italy since 1982, and who has therefore not been able to vote in UK Parliamentary elections, took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 and argued that no time limit should be imposed on the right of British citizens living overseas to vote in the UK. In its judgment on 7 May 2013, the European Court ruled that there had been no violation of Article 3 of Protocol No 1 (right to free elections) of the European Convention on Human Rights and determined that the UK had legitimately confined the parliamentary franchise to those citizens who had ‘a close connection to the UK and who would therefore be most directly affected by its laws.’

This Note provides background to the provisions relating to overseas voters in the Representation of the People Act 1985 which was subsequently amended by the Representation of the People Act 1989 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Information is also given about the procedure for registering to vote as an overseas elector and the means of voting, either by post or by proxy.

There are different arrangements for the armed forces and these are covered in Library Standard Note SN/PC/4276, Armed forces voting.

Commons Briefing papers SN05923

Author: Isobel White

Topics: Elections, Electoral franchise, General elections

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