Who are overseas voters and what is the 15 year rule?
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 are not entitled to vote in UK local elections or elections to the devolved assemblies.
Until 2015 the number of overseas voters registered to vote had never risen above 35,000. In the annual ONS electoral register figures of December 2016 this had risen to 264,000. This was largely because of an overseas voter registration campaign in the run up to the 2015 General Election and interest in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
At the UK General Election of 2017 there were a record 285,000. There are no estimates of how many British nationals living abroad would be eligible to register under the current 15 year rule.
There are different arrangements for the armed forces and these are covered in Library Standard Note SN/PC/4276, Armed forces voting. There are also separate arrangements for Crown servants and British Council employees working overseas.
The Government's commitment to remove the 15 year rule
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 scrap 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.
During Business questions on 21 July 2016, the Leader of the House, David Lidington, indicated that extending the franchise was a complex matter “because we would have to not just extend the franchise but establish a new system of voter registration, which is not straightforward given that voter registers no longer exist for periods that go back earlier than 15 years. We have to find some way of allocating those individuals to constituencies and verifying a previous place of residence.”
Votes for life
On 7 October 2016 the Government published a policy statement, A democracy that works for everyone: British citizens overseas, which sets out how the 15 year rule will be removed and how all eligible British citizens who have lived in the UK will be given a lifelong right to vote in Parliamentary elections. British citizens living abroad will have to provide either a verifiable National Insurance number, or a current UK passport, or an identity attestation, in order to be registered as an overseas voter.
Overseas voters will continue to be registered at a previous address in the UK and the Electoral Registration Officer will need to be satisfied of their connection with that address. The registration will last for twelve months and will then have to be renewed.
Could overseas voters vote in the EU referendum?
The franchise for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was the Parliamentary franchise and overseas voters were therefore able to vote in the referendum. The Electoral Commission’s overseas voter day took place on 10 May 2016; this was supported by embassies and consulates around the world and was aimed at encouraging British citizens who are eligible to register as overseas voters to do so before 16 May 2016 so that they could vote in the EU referendum. The Commission also ran a public awareness campaign for overseas voters from 17 March to 9 June 2016. Over 135,000 overseas voters regsitered in this period.
Court cases which have challenged the legality of the 15 year rule
Harry Shindler, a British citizen who has lived in Italy since 1982, and Jacquelyn MacLennan, who has lived in Brussels since 1987, were not able to vote in the EU referendum and took a case to the High Court challenging the legality of the franchise for the referendum which excluded British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. The High Court’s judgment on 28 April 2016 rejected the claim. Shindler and MacLennan sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court; this application was heard on 9 May 2016 and leave to appeal was refused by the Court in a judgment on 20 May 2016.
On 24 May 2016 the Supreme Court refused Shindler and MacLennan’s application for permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s judgment which will therefore stand.
Harry Shindler had taken 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 Briefing Paper also 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.