EU27 citizens must keep their voting rights in local government elections

By Ruvi Ziegler (University of Reading), GLOBALCIT collaborator. This blogpost originally appeared on New Europeans. We are reposting with prior permission of the author.

Citizens of all EU27 member states resident in the UK have a right to vote in local government elections – including elections to district and county councils, the GLA, city mayors, police and crime commissioners, and indeed elections to devolved legislatures.

This right is established in domestic legislation, pursuant to Section 2(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and applies across the UK except in Scotland.

In Scotland, the power to determine voting eligibility in local government elections is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, where the government has recently tabled the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill proposing to extend the franchise to all non-UK citizens who reside there.

While Scotland is aiming to become more inclusive, in the rest of the UK, the picture is less promising.

As I forewarned could happen in my submission to the House of Lords EU (Justice) Sub-Committee in November 2017, the Withdrawal Agreement does not guarantee the maintenance of existing local government electoral rights for those covered by its remit, let alone suggest a framework for such rights to accrue for other EU27 citizens and UK citizens were the UK to leave the EU.

This, in turn, has led the government to reach agreements with Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg on preserving reciprocal voting rights in local government elections.

The (political) premise appears to be that, the right to vote in local government elections may be removed in future from citizens of member states  with whom such agreements cannot be reached.

Along with my colleagues at New Europeans , I believe that the case for maintenance of electoral rights of all EU27 citizens in the UK, irrespective of reciprocity, is compelling.

Electoral eligibility signifies membership of the communities in which EU27 have made their home; it demonstrates that they remain equal, in law and in fact. It enables EU27 citizens to continue to contribute to their local communities.

EU27 citizens should be able to continue to participate in civic life, and voting is one of the important founding blocks of citizenship.

Conversely, disenfranchising EU27 citizens would be detrimental to their standing in society, harm community relations, and send an exclusionary and unwelcoming message to EU27 citizens, who will continue to pay local and national taxes regardless of their citizenship rights.

There is strong public support for EU27 citizens’ electoral rights.

A national survey found that 73% of British citizens would like to either protect or extend electoral rights of EU27 citizens: 48% would like to extend the electoral rights that EU27 citizens in the UK currently enjoy to include a right to vote in the General Election whereas 25% would maintain EU27 citizens’ existing right to vote in local government elections.

Only 10% supported withdrawing EU27 citizens’ right to vote.

It is worth reemphasising that, the default legal position is that the right to vote in local government elections is maintained, until and unless a UK government may seek to remove it through legislative amendment.

There is a risk however that, were the UK to leave the EU, some citizens of other EU member states will wrongly assume that they no longer have a right to vote in such elections and consequently refrain from (re)registering to vote.

Given that there are plenty of local government elections scheduled for May 2020, the risk of inadvertent disenfranchisement is real.

We forewarned about the malleable effect of registration procedures on the exercise of the right to vote in the May 2019 European Parliamentary Elections and have now seen the impact as the #DeniedMyVote campaign unfolds.

It is therefore incumbent on the government, and the Electoral Commission, to ensure that citizens of other EU countries are aware of the fact that, to coin a phrase, ‘nothing has changed’; and for us to ensure that (to coin another) ‘change is [not] coming’.