“Complex and unfair” rules exclude millions of migrants from voting

Else Kvist

United Kingdom (Brussels Morning Newspaper), The case for all long-term residents to have a right to vote in UK General Elections was put to MPs and Peers at Parliament. But while that might seem like a natural progression from having a right to vote in local elections, Brexit means that many EU citizens living in the UK will now (from June 2024) lose their right to vote in local elections. At a Citizens’ Rights All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting, organized by New Europeans UK, councilor Lara Parizotto, co-founder of the Migrant Democracy Project, explained the complexity of the UK franchise and how even more challenging the system is about to become for voters and campaigners alike. 

The passing of the government’s Elections Act means that only EU citizens, with either pre-settled or settled status, who arrived in the UK before Brexit (by December 31, 2020) will continue to have the right to vote in local elections in England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales determine their own franchises). EU citizens, who entered the UK post-Brexit (from Jan 1, 2021 onwards), will only have the right to vote in local elections if their country of origin has secured a bilateral voting rights agreement with the UK. Thus far, Poland, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain have signed such agreements with the UK, Cllr Parizotto explained. Since the meeting, Denmark has also signed such an agreement with the UK.

All EU citizens can vote in May’s local elections until law changes 

Lara Parizotto was keen to stress that all EU citizens will still be able to register for and vote in the upcoming local election, along with the London mayoral and assembly elections, on May 2. “However, from June onwards, every local authority across the country will have to do the job of removing some EU citizens from the electoral roll. – Specifically, those who entered the UK in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024, and have already registered to vote and voted, but who from June onwards will no longer be able to vote, ” explained Cllr Parizotto. 

Civil servants have told us that this “mass removal” of people from the electoral roll has not been done before and will put a lot of pressure on the resources of local authorities, who will have to identify if an EU citizen arrived in the UK before or after 2021, and if their country of origin has a bilateral voting rights agreement, Lara Parizotto said. And what happens if more countries sign a bilateral voting agreement with the UK or if a country withdraws from their agreement? “Then some of the same citizens would need to be added back or removed from the electoral register”, she added.  

Campaigners and politicians out canvassing will also face the complex task of trying to explain the rules to people on the doorstep. Cllr Lara Parizotto said campaigners could be faced with having to ask: “Where are you from? What date did you arrive in the UK? Does your country have a bilateral voting agreement?” 

Our Home Our Vote 

It is against this backdrop that the Migrant Democracy Project is seeking a simpler and fairer residents-based voting system. Their campaign ‘Our Home our Vote’ is calling for all lawful residents, no matter their nationality, to be able to vote in local elections and for all long-term residents to be enfranchised in general elections. 

According to their estimates, this would add around another one million eligible voters for local elections. Some groups of migrants can already vote in local elections. These include EU, Commonwealth and Irish citizens. Such changes would also bring voting rights in England and Northern Ireland in line with Scotland and Wales, where all lawful residents can vote in local and devolved elections for the Scottish Parliament and Senedd. 

Similarly, Commonwealth citizens, no matter how long they have lived in the UK, already have the right to vote in all elections in the UK, including general elections. “So why can’t EU citizens, why can’t residents of any nationality, who have secured indefinite leave to remain or settled status (which generally means they have lived at least five years in the UK) have the vote?” was the question posed by Cllr Lara Parizotto.

Chair of New Europeans, Prof. Ruvi Ziegler, pointed out that a question had been asked by Lord Rennard in the House of Lords in relation to the planned removal of EU citizens from the registrar, and that one of the answers provided to explain why voting rights in general elections is retained only for Commonwealth citizens was the “deep historical links” to the Commonwealth. 

Prof. Ruvi Ziegler said: “Intriguingly there are actually countries in the Commonwealth that have never been UK colonies: Rwanda, Mozambique, Gabon, who joined last year, and part of Cameroon. So there are clearly no deep historical links there – certainly not stronger than with neighboring African countries whose nationals are not able to vote in UK elections. Arguably there are hitherto quite deep historical links with countries that have been part of the same club (EU) for 50 years. So that seems like a very odd construction.”  

Prof Ziegler concluded that it’s ultimately England, which has taken this view, as Scotland and Wales have extended the franchise to all residents in those elections they have control over (local and devolved).

Cllr Lara Parizotto, who is believed to be the first Brazilian councilor in the UK added: “I have friends from Brazil who have lived in the UK for 17 or 20 years, who have never been able to vote, not even in a local election. That’s what we want to change. We don’t believe it’s fair that so many long-term residents cannot vote in general elections,” she concluded. 

The last census showed that one in six residents in England and Wales were born outside the UK.

Cost of Citizenship 

Some may wonder why migrants don’t just apply for British citizenship. 

Cllr Lara Parizotto said: “Unfortunately this is not an option for everyone. A lot of people cannot afford the fees and some cannot because their country of origin does not allow dual nationality. We live in a mobile society and people are not prepared to give up on their original citizenship, if for example they still need to care for a family member.”

The cost of applying for British citizenship is currently almost £1,600, according to the government’s website, not including fees such as the ceremony itself. -While the need for some migrants to obtain Indefinite Leave to Remain will already have been a long and costly journey.

Political momentum for change 

There is already support for extending voting rights among representatives of the opposition parties. During the Elections Bill debate, Labour MP Alex Norris tabled an amendment for the right to vote to be extended to all settled residents in General Elections. Lord Shipley, a Liberal Democrat, tabled an amendment for everyone who is eligible to pay council tax to have the right to vote in local elections. 

The Labour Party’s National Policy Forum 2023 document states that “those who contribute to our society should have a say in how it is governed”.

The Green Party also states as a policy that “all visa residents will have the right to vote in all elections and referendums.”

Public support 

The Migrant Democracy Project carried out its own research, which showed that 54% of people believe that all adults living legally in the UK, regardless of citizenship, should be able to vote in local elections. When it comes to general elections, 60% of those asked believed that adults with Settled Status or Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK should have the right to vote. 

The APPG also heard from Lara Parizotto’s colleague, Denisa Strango, who explained the work carried out by the Migrant Democracy Project in reaching communities from different countries to promote voter registration. She pointed out that confusion exists among EU citizens about their eligibility to vote in local elections and that many Commonwealth citizens do not realise that they can vote in national elections. 

“Vilification” of Albanians makes it harder to reach a community 

The APPG then heard from Luljeta Nuzi, CEO of the Shpresa Programme, which represents the Albanian Community. Shpresa has worked with the Albanian-speaking community for over 20 years to help people integrate with dignity, including raising awareness about voting rights. But this task has not become any easier amid the political discourse. 

Luljeta Nuzi said: “The Illegal Migration Bill and the language used in the past year has been vilifying the Albanian community, and that has destroyed our power to go and ask people to vote – as the language aligning the Albanian community with organized crime or with the (small) boats really has an impact, and we have seen an increase in bullying, racism, and discrimination. I think every politician should be mindful of the language used as that has a ripple effect on people who live here and are British, and contributing to our economy and society.” 

But Luljeta Nuzi emphasized that they are not giving up. “It’s a relatively small community in terms of numbers, but we believe everyone matters.”  

She described how their building has become the house where everyone is helped practically, where councillors or MPs such as Stephen Timms, come to talk to residents about how and why they can vote. 

Most Albanians are based in London where over 34,000 Albanians live, while over 8,000 live in the South East, and over 700 in Wales, according to the last census. 

The APPG was attended by parliamentarians Sir Peter Bottomley, Baroness Smith of Newnham, and Andy Slaughter. 

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Else is a Danish freelance journalist and researcher in the UK, who works across print, web, and video to tell local, national and international stories