European elections: Hundreds of EU citizens ‘turned away from polling stations and denied vote’

‘At the polling station my British husband gets the ballot while I am simply told: “Vote in your own country!”’

Tom Batchelor
Thursday 23 May 2019 13:04 BST
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Hundreds of EU citizens hoping to cast their ballots in the European elections have reported being turned away from polling stations.

Reports of confusion among election officials and administrative errors had resulted in a “democratic disaster” with eligible voters being prevented from taking part, Maike Bohn of the3million group said.

“I was just #DeniedMyVote, despite being a registered EU citizen,” wrote one affected voter. “At the polling station my British husband gets the ballot while I am simply told: ‘Vote in your own country!’”

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Dutch national Emma Zürcher, a teaching assistant at University College London, said she was denied a vote because she did not have the correct form despite discussing her registration with the local authority in east London weeks in advance.

“I’ve lived in the UK for six years, have paid taxes, have volunteered, have taught your kids at university but I can’t vote today because [Tower Hamlets] did not send me the form EU citizens need to fill [out],” she wrote.

Reports of voters being turned away from polling stations across the UK suggested the problem was widespread.

In Leeds, a Polish woman was said to have been denied a vote because the city council had not received the registration letter from the Electoral Commission, despite it being sent a month ago.

“My mum’s vote just got denied in Plymouth, Devon,” wrote another of those affected. “She has been a resident in the UK for nearly two decades.”

London-based singer Azadi tweeted: “Got #DeniedMyVote this morning as I’d never been sent the extra paperwork that EU citizens needed to fill to be eligible to vote. There wasn’t even a link or a heads up in the email confirmation of my voter registration when I checked with the council.”

Miguel Gomez, a plumber from Cranfield, said he felt “sad and angry with a country that I call home” after being turned away.

Others described arduous journeys to ensure their ballots were counted after apparent mix-ups with postal votes.

“Nearly #DeniedMyVote postal vote delivered too late to post back,” wrote an affected voter. “Round trip to Newcastle at a cost of £100 for an overnight bus journey – and a train ticket (too tired to go back on the bus). To collect from friend and hand in. Then go back to London.”

Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller said the scale of the problem was “shocking – people who have lived, worked, loved in this country for years are being shown open hostility and denied their democratic right”.

The issue also caught the attention of politicians on the continent. Dutch MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma tweeted that reports of EU citizens being denied a vote was “unacceptable” while German MP Niema Movassat said the situation was ”incomprehensible”.

Campaigners have been warning for weeks that thousands of EU nationals living in the UK could inadvertently lose their right to take part in the upcoming European elections because of widespread confusion over how to register.

Existing rules stipulated that EU citizens had to both register to vote and sign a special “UC1” form stating that they would not vote anywhere else in the EU, by 7 May.

But confusion arose because the UC1 form must be resubmitted before every election, even if the European national intending to vote has already signed and submitted that form previously – for example before the 2014 poll.

Campaigners representing EU citizens in the UK said last month they were concerned a lack of awareness about the process could disenfranchise thousands of EU voters with the deadline fast approaching.

Concerns were such that the Electoral Commission launched a publicity campaign to make EU nationals aware of the form. But the body admitted it was only running the advertising in select regions of the UK.

Theresa May faced criticism on Thursday for ignoring calls to change the rules to allow voters to fill out the UC1 form at polling stations.

The SNP’s Joanna Cherry raised the issue during PMQs on Wednesday and Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement, said Labour had also “repeatedly warned the government that European citizens living in the UK would be denied their right to vote”.

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Ms Bohn of the3million group told The Independent: “Today, we are being contacted by hundreds of EU citizens turned away from the polling booths. It is outrageous that the incompetence and unwillingness of the government and the Electoral Commission have denied these people a vote. The3million is calling for a full investigation of this democratic disaster that has disenfranchised many of the European citizens most affected by the outcome of these elections.

“Thousands of people are being affected by this. In the meantime, we urge all EU citizens who were denied their vote to complain on social media using #DeniedMyVote, and write to their MP and the Electoral Commission to express their outrage.”

Jane Golding, of British in Europe, said many of the UK citizens living and working on the continent represented by her group had also been affected by postal voting irregularities.

“It comes as no surprise whatsoever that postal votes have gone missing, arrived late or simply didn’t arrive at all because the UK’s attitude to its overseas voters is outdated and broken,” she said.

“The UK needs to get its act together, give all its citizens a vote wherever they live and set up 21st century procedures for dealing with its overseas voters. Democracy matters, our votes matter. Other countries manage it, so can the UK.”

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said they “understand the frustration of some citizens of other EU member states, resident in the UK, who have been finding they are unable to vote today when they wish to do so”.

But the body said it was for the government to bring forward legislation that would make registering to vote easier in future.

The spokesperson said: “This legal process could be made easier for citizens, and the commission made the case for doing so following the last EU elections in 2014. However, improvements to the process are reliant on changes to electoral law, which can only be taken forward by government and parliament.

“The very short notice from the government of the UK’s participation in these elections impacted on the time available for awareness of this process amongst citizens, and for citizens to complete the process. EU citizens’ right to vote in the election in their home member state remains unaffected by the change in the UK’s participation; in order to do so, they would need to be registered in that country in accordance with that country’s process and timetable.”

The Cabinet Office said it was the responsibility of returning officers to ensure poll cards were distributed in good time. It said it was funding a sorting process for the European elections to ensure as many postal ballots as possible are identified in mail centres on polling day and made available to returning officers before close of poll at 10pm.

However the problem did not appear to be affecting the UK alone, with reports in Dutch media suggesting just 12 per cent of the 490,000 EU nationals living in the Netherlands were registered to vote.

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