British political parties in general find it difficult to communicate with the large and widespread British expatriate population and, therefore, to release the full potential of this overseas voter base. That the currently registered number of such overseas voters is estimated at less than 1% of the total is, however, then taken by some as an indication of general apathy, rather than looking further into why this might be so. One such reason of course is that some 50% of this overseas voter base is already excluded by the 15 year rule, which deprives longer term expatriates of the right to vote in the UK. It is argued below that there are further problems of identification, registration and voting with the other 50%, which tend to further reduce the number of overseas voters.
Our political parties are set up to work through their local branches in defined domestic constituencies and, for canvassing purposes, have access to the Electoral Roll of the Electoral Commission, with which by law householders must register details of all those of voting age living within a household. The law is currently being amended to provide for Individual Electoral Registration although whether individuals will still be required by law to register is still not clear. In contrast, the parties rely on a few politically active volunteers in their international branches to address the overseas voter base and e.g. to recruit members, raise party funds and encourage other British expatriates to register to vote. However, the relatively limited resources of these international branches are further diluted by problems of distance, density and distribution when trying to reach out to and identify their local British expatriate base, not helped by the general lack of consular records of British residents. The broadest communications means of registering overseas voters is then via the website http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk operated by the Electoral Commission, which needs to be communicated much more effectively to British expatriates.
The electoral registration form for overseas voters which can be downloaded from http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk states that if you are a British citizen living abroad, as long as you were registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years, you are then eligible to vote in elections for the UK Parliament and the European Parliament but not in UK local or mayoral elections, or to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales or the London Assembly. It is not surprising then that the number of British overseas voters registered increased from 13,600 to over 30,000 before the last election in 2010 not least due the higher level interest in national elections, together with the increase in media attention and canvassing activities. However, this still remains a disappointedly low number as far as the politicians in London are concerned.
That said, at first sight it seems quite easy to register by downloading an electoral registration form (for a British citizen living overseas) from http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk. You read that you should register to vote as soon as you can, or it may be too late to vote in the next election. However, with the next General Election not until 2015, the natural impulse is to put off registering until closer to the date. If you do decide to register, you are informed that you can vote in one of three ways:
• By post, which is generally ruled out in most cases by the ballot paper not being sent out until 4 working days before election day, and having to be returned completed before voting closes on election day in order to count.
• By proxy, when you ask someone you know and trust to vote on your behalf (although this can still be open to abuse).
• In person, if you are in the UK on election day but you can only vote at the polling station where you are registered to vote in the UK. Also, you cannot vote at your local embassy or consulate (despite this being a common practice for expatriates of some other nations such as France).
The most practical option from the above appears to be by proxy but the overall impression is of a system which does not make it convenient for expatriates to register and/or vote, not least given their special circumstances, the presence of local embassies and/or consulates and the advanced telecommunications means available today.
Indeed, due to advances in travel and telecommunications it is now so much easier for international operations to be run via daily telephone calls, e-mail and video conferencing. As a result, around 750,000 British workers including young talented professionals are currently being posted abroad, while still being supervised and coached by their managers in the UK. The increasing use of such temporary global workers whose average time spent overseas is 5.4 years, is blurring the traditional definition of an expat according to Dave Isley, Head of NatWest International Personal Banking. In theory, these global workers should also register as overseas voters but this is unlikely, given the inconvenience and average length of their assignments, and they are more likely to remain on the domestic Electoral Register, again contributing to a rather false sense of general apathy amongst overseas voters, due only to their low registration rate.