maike bohnThousands of EU citizens will be effectively disenfranchised at the European Parliament elections on 23 May, thanks to a little-known rule requiring them to fill out an extra form in order to vote. the3million co-founder Maike Bohn says the Electoral Commission must now extend the deadline for those who have already registered to vote – and answer serious questions about the failings of the UK’s electoral system. 

On 7 May, the Cabinet Office minister David Lidington officially announced the UK’s participation in the European Parliament elections. On the same day, thousands of EU citizens were potentially disenfranchised in those elections. That was the deadline for a little-known extra step that EU citizens living in the UK need to take to be able to cast their vote on 23 May.

EU citizens intending to vote in the UK rather than in their country of origin have to fill in an additional declaration form to register to vote in these elections.  When it was introduced in 2014, this extra step meant that many EU citizens were turned away from polling stations despite being on the electoral register, due to their failure to fill in the extra form. It became clear that many electoral registration officers had not sent it out to EU citizens on their register. The resulting steep drop in the number of EU nationals eligible to vote, from over one million to some 300,000, prompted the Electoral Commission to promise to ensure “that electoral registration officers are aware that they must send this form.” This commitment was never fulfilled. The Commission’s ultimate excuse is that it was not prepared for the UK to participate in this election.

The uncertainty around Britain’s participation prompted a game of Old Maid between the UK government and the Electoral Commission, with both sides shifting responsibility to each other. It is true, of course, that the situation is complicated by political factors and the short time in which to address them. The government has only just formally announced the UK participation in these elections and that made it difficult for any public body to act without a mandate. This provides an easy excuse for the Commission as to why nothing was done.  However, it was clear from 9 April that UK participation was highly likely, and some councils (for example Oxford) sent out the additional form on or shortly after that date. the3million approached the Electoral Commission on 15 April to ask whether they would be contacting all council electoral registration officers to make them aware that they must send out the registration form to EU citizens. The answer was a vague promise of an ‘awareness campaign’ and the defensive statement that ‘the law does not require electoral registration officers to send the form out to all EU citizens’. 

While some councils have shown leadership and helped to cut down on extra bureaucracy by sending EU citizens the form and explicitly allowing a return by email, the only evidence we have seen of the Commission’s awareness campaign is two tweets, pointing EU citizens to a badly designed and confusing website, and not even clearly stating that forms could be returned by email too. Not only has the Commission not made any changes to the system and now been caught out by the tight timeframe of these elections, it has shown a deplorable lack of clarity and leadership.

The void left by this inertia was finally filled by some well-meaning initiatives trying to help EU citizens to register electronically. One of them, registertovote.eu, even asked the Commission for guidance and was left under the assumption that its tool complied with all regulations – only to find itself referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office on the afternoon of Friday 3 May, just before a bank holiday. The Commission, true to form, discouraged EU citizens from using these third party apps but did not explain why they should not use them, nor provide any advice to EU citizens on alternative methods of getting the declaration form to their councils until the 7 May deadline.

That deadline has now passed. For EU citizens in the UK, in practical terms, it passed 3.5 days earlier than for UK citizens as the last postal date for those forms to reach local councils was noon on Saturday 4 May. That is 3.5 days out of a total of only 28 days since it became clear EU elections might be held.

The poor process and communication – as well as the Electoral Commission’s general unhelpfulness – have created a messy situation. There are countless examples of EU citizens being sent the form at the last minute, forms being lost and council officers giving wrong advice. This is only one of many complaints:

“My council sent me the extra form on Thursday. THURSDAY. I didn’t find it until I got off work, after the post office closed. So I had a day and a half. Oh, and the accompanying letter was dated 23/04, meaning they wrote it and then sat on it for 2 weeks.”

The treatment of EU27 citizens in this election raises serious questions about the government’s compliance with the most basic principles of democracy. As Paul Behrens, a Reader in Law at the University of Edinburgh, says:

“In a democracy, it is not enough that you have, in theory, the right to vote; every voter must have equal access to the ballot papers. When parts of the population are given insufficient time to return a registration form while other voters have already received their polling cards, the fulfillment of this principle is much in doubt. EU law is very explicit about the need to give the necessary information to voters in a timely manner, and with good reason.”

The EU citizens who have made their homes in the UK are arguably the most “European”, with lives stretching across the Channel, but we are now fast becoming the least politically represented in Europe. It is too late for those who haven’t even registered to vote in the UK, but the government has a moral and democratic duty to help those who have already registered by extending the deadline or even allowing the form to be submitted at the polling station on 23 May.

And when those elections are over, we need to have a serious conversation about addressing the disenfranchisement of EU citizens post-Brexit.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Maike Bohn (@maikebohn) is co-founder of the3million.

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