Democracy lost out when four out of five EU citizens living here couldn’t vote

Silenced: 1.7 million people in the UK were locked out of the EU elections

There is a feeling in our democracy that our future is being decided on the basis of limited information, or even fake news. More than that, there are worries that not enough people are taking part in the electoral process – and that too many are being barred from taking part at all. But it’s more than just a feeling; the evidence to back it up is mounting.

According to a new report from the Electoral Commission, no fewer than 1.7 million EU citizens living in the UK – all of whom had previously been registered to vote – were unable to vote in this year’s European elections. That’s four out of every five EU citizens on the electoral roll. Everyone who professes to care about democracy should be alarmed.

While it’s not possible to establish the exact numbers, the commission estimates that only 450,000 EU citizens were formally registered to vote for the European parliament elections after returning the additional declaration form required to ensure they can vote in the UK. The commission also noted that some of the 1.7 million who had voted previously in the UK may have either decided to vote in another EU country where they held citizenship or chosen not to vote at all.

Meanwhile, during the EU elections, when I was running the Remain United tactical voting campaign and website, my team and I were inundated with calls and emails from EU citizens who were being denied their chance to vote. People who wanted to vote told us of being devastated to see their names on the registers, but crossed off due to clerical errors by local council staff. Some of them faced aggressive accusations that they were lying when they sought to secure their democratic rights.

We encouraged as many as possible to return and insist that they had the right to vote. Some were successful, but we could hear the pain and emotion in their voices. They were longing to vote, but being silenced by the country they live, love and contribute to and think of still as their home.

Some had queued for hours at council offices and laboriously filled in forms. Others followed the complex rules precisely and posted their votes – only to be told they never arrived or arrived too late.

Too much bureaucracy was often cited as the problem. The “UC1 forms” these voters were required to submit were notoriously difficult to complete. This is not a new problem: after the 2014 EU elections, the Electoral Commission was heavily criticised for putting too many bureaucratic hurdles in EU citizens’ way, and it promised to simplify the procedure so they could more easily register to vote in the European elections in the UK. Clearly, it had not done so by May this year.

Some faced aggressive accusations that they were lying when they sought to secure their rights

The commission said it had numerous meetings with the government to try to ensure there would be no problems in the European elections. It had also worked with returning officers around the country in preparation for the polls. It said that ahead of the elections, it had also undertaken a two-and-a-half-week public awareness campaign – mostly using television – but admitted that the “late confirmation” of the European elections “significantly” reduced the time for planning and setup.

In the European elections, the pro-Leave Brexit Party topped the polls with 31.6 per cent of the vote; the Lib Dems received 20.3 per cent, and Labour 14.1 per cent. Given that so many people were effectively disenfranchised, I am starting to wonder how valid these results really are.

The Electoral Commission has highlighted that the difficulties experienced by those who wanted to vote stem partly from the government’s delay in taking forward established recommendations for electoral reform. The question that troubles me is: why? Could this have amounted to a cynical ruse by the government to disenfranchise people who were unlikely to vote in their favour?

The commission identifies two key issues that had a detrimental impact on voters: the difficulties experienced by some EU citizens living in the UK who wanted to vote in the European parliamentary elections in the UK, and the difficulties experienced by overseas British voters who were unable to return postal votes in time to be counted.

The report also shows that overall levels of voter confidence in the running of these elections was lower than at other recent polls. Public opinion research carried out for the commission’s report showed that confidence that the European parliamentary elections were well-run had fallen by more than 10 percentage points since the elections last took place in 2014, while confidence in the running of the local elections was down by 12 points on last year.

Bob Posner, the commission’s chief executive, has said it is unacceptable that some EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living abroad experienced difficulties that prevented them from voting at the EU elections. He believes that the government dragging its feet was a big part of the problem, and is calling for an urgent update to our existing electoral laws if trust and confidence are to be preserved.

For some time, the commission and other electoral experts have been recommending changes. In 2017, the government had said that an online system where all citizens, including EU citizens, could check their registration status was too expensive and would require too much work. This was a key proposal of the 2016 Missing Millions report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation, and it’s a pity that it couldn’t have been made to work.

There is also the issue of underfunding of electoral services and staff across the UK, confusion over student voting registration, and the problems caused by online targeting, all of which look set to continue. These issues must be addressed to end the exclusion and increasing mistrust that afflict our democracy.

Democracy only functions when a substantial percentage of the voting population is enfranchised. Let us be a democracy not just in name, but in practical, fair terms.

Gina Miller is a transparency campaigner and businesswoman