Should long-term emigrants be allowed to vote?

By: David Klemperer

In January of this year, to relatively little fanfare, the UK Government extended voting rights to people who no longer live in the UK. In secondary legislation putting into effect the 2022 Elections Act, the previous 15-year time-limit on overseas voting was removed, meaning that UK citizens who emigrated more than 15 years ago – regardless of the age at which they left, and regardless of any intention to return – will now be able to vote in general elections. Specifically, they will be able to register to vote either by post or by proxy, in whichever UK parliamentary constituency they can prove they most recently resided. This change was a 2019 Conservative manifesto promise, and a demand of the campaign group “British in Europe”, which is now partnering with the Electoral Commission to implement it by raising awareness. 

The largest increase to the franchise since 1928, the extension of emigrant voting rights is a substantive constitutional change. It therefore behoves constitutional commentators to ask whether it is necessarily a change for the better. 

The significance of emigrant voting

The introduction of unlimited voting for emigrants has the potential to impact both the conduct and outcome of future general elections – including the one expected later this year. Until 2015, no more than 35,000 overseas citizens had ever registered to vote – a miniscule proportion of the overall electorate. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum however, this has started to change: at the 2017 election, there were 285,000 registered overseas voters, and at the 2019 election there were 233,000. Now, the new rule change means that an additional 2.2 million emigrants will be eligible to register if they so wish, bringing the estimated total number of potential overseas voters to roughly 3.5 million.

Emigrant voters could thus theoretically account for over 5% of the electorate – easily enough to provide winning margin in scores of parliamentary constituencies. They therefore could, as overseas voters registered in Florida did in the US presidential election of 2000, swing the result of an entire election. As there is currently no information on where in the UK emigrant voters are most likely to be eligible to register, they are a highly unpredictable factor, and pose a campaigning challenge for political parties. At least one party is taking this challenge seriously: perhaps most cognisant of the potential significance of a change they have themselves introduced, the Conservative Party has hired an overseas voter registration coordinator, to harvest proxy votes from their emigrant supporters. 

The debate on emigrant voting

Despite the lack of an extensive public debate on the topic, overseas voting has historically been the subject of much parliamentary disputation. Until 1985, only Crown servants and members of the Armed Forces were eligible to vote from abroad. However, a 1982 report by the Home Affairs Select Committee called for the introduction of overseas voting, and in 1985 it was brought in by the then-Conservative Government. Although the time-limit was originally 5 years, this proved contentious, and in 1989, following further parliamentary debate, it was extended to 20 years. However, in 1998 a new report by the Home Affairs Select Committee called for the original time-limit to be restored, and in 2000 the then-Labour Government compromised by reducing the time-limit to 15 years. Since 2015, the Conservative Party has been committed to removing the time-limit, a policy that it has now implemented. 

There are good reasons to support the extension of voting rights to long-term emigrants. Many retain close ties to the UK, whether familial, financial, or even just emotional. Some will possess assets in the UK, on which they may continue to pay UK taxes. More importantly, there is a strong philosophical case that the democratic rights conferred by citizenship should not depend on location, as the UK state remains the ultimate source of protection for UK citizens wherever they are in the world. 

However, the arguments against are perhaps more powerful. For a start, whatever the strength of their continuing ties to the UK, simply by virtue of living outside of the country, emigrants do not have the same relationship to a UK government as residents. They do not have the day-to-day experience of living under its laws, are less impacted by its economic decisions, and are unlikely to be directly affected by the state of UK infrastructure or public services. Moreover, the nature of the UK’s parliamentary democracy and electoral system is such that voters in general elections are not simply choosing a national government, but also electing a local representative for the area in which they live. It is therefore anomalous to let long-term emigrants participate in the selection of representatives for areas in which they do not reside. 

The anomaly is made clearer when placed in the context of the wider UK franchise, which allows Irish and Commonwealth citizens to vote on the basis of residency. To extend the franchise to non-residents, rather than to those UK residents still as-yet unenfranchised seems incongruous with the logic of the system. On a philosophical level then, the moral force of citizenship must be weighed against the material facts of residency and non-residency, as well as the potential moral significance of having chosen to live elsewhere (this not to mention the fact that many UK citizens abroad are likely also to be citizens of – and to vote in – the country of their residence). 

Finally, as the Electoral Reform Society has highlighted, allowing long-term emigrants to register to vote poses a threat to the transparency and integrity of UK elections, by making it easier for parties to receive financing from abroad. As any UK citizen on the electoral register can legally make political donations, long-term emigrants will now be entitled to do so, and thus could become a vector by which foreign interests attempt to exert influence on UK politics. 

Options for the future

There are good reasons, then, to be concerned at the Government’s policy, and should a future government wish to limit the electoral influence of emigrants, there are a number of options open to them. Firstly, they could simply reverse the latest change by re-introducing the time limit for eligibility – potentially even at a lower limit, such as 10 or even 5 years. This would effectively follow the precedent set by the New Labour Government in 2000, when it reduced the then-limit of 20 years to 15. A government could also introduce the rule – used by many US states, and by Australia – that overseas voting rights be limited to emigrants who formally express an intention to return.

An alternative option would be to bring the UK in line with comparable democracies such as France and Italy, by changing how emigrant voters are represented. Rather than allowing citizens overseas to register in the constituency in which they most recently resided, these countries have created specific parliamentary constituencies for voters abroad, based on the part of the world in which they currently live. France, for instance, has eleven parliamentary constituencies for French citizens abroad, including one specifically for French residents of the UK. This approach, which has been proposed in the UK by the Liberal Democrats, offers a means of better representing the specific interests of emigrant voters, while isolating their influence from the rest of the electoral process.

However, any decision concerning the future of emigrant voting should ideally be taken in the context of a broader discussion of the franchise as a whole.  While the electoral system used to elect MPs is frequently a topic of heated debate, the question of who actually votes goes disappointedly underdiscussed.  This is all the more disappointing since voting rights in the UK remain an uneven patchwork, with different franchises for different elections, and specific rules for resident Irish and Commonwealth citizens (and, until Brexit, for EU citizens). Overseas voting then should not be considered in isolation, but rather as part of a broader re-consideration of what “universal suffrage” ought to mean today. Specifically, this might mean considering what limits on voting rights should be imposed with regards to considerations such as age, citizenship, and residency, and what obstacles and obligations should exist with regards to the act of voting itself. 

David Klemperer.

David Klemperer is a PhD candidate in History at Queen Mary University of London, and a former Research Fellow at the Constitution Society.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.