Lifetime voting rights for overseas Brits

Written by Sanae Samata
February 22, 2024


Written by Sanae Samata
February 22, 2024

British citizens living overseas have been granted lifetime voting rights from January 16, ending the previous 15-year limit on registrations. With an estimated 3.5 million British nationals living overseas, including in Japan, what does this mean for expats and their democratic rights?

Former Japan resident and Director of the British Overseas Voters Forum, Bruce Darrington, discussed the change and its implications for British expats in a Tokyo event hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan on January 31. He also introduced the role and objectives of the forum, a UK-based organisation with no alignment to any political party.

Introduced under the May 2022 Elections Act, the reforms allow any British citizen living overseas to register to vote if they were previously registered to vote in British elections, or were resident in the UK before moving abroad. This replaced the rule that only allowed someone to register within 15 years of leaving the country.

As well as providing a “vote for life,” the rule change allows voters to register for three years instead of one. Overseas voters would register in the local authority of the last UK address where they were registered to vote or were resident, and can request a postal vote or appoint a proxy.

Darrington pointed to a number of reasons why British citizens living overseas should be allowed to vote, including their tax payments to the UK, money remittances and other contributions such as support of aged family members in the UK. Voting ability also reflects the reciprocal rights of foreigners living in the UK, including Japanese, who pay British taxes but vote in their own country’s elections.

As many as 5.6 million British citizens are living abroad, according to Darrington, with an estimated 3.5 million expats entitled to vote in 2024 out of a total national electorate of some 47.1 million.

“Wales and Northern Ireland have roughly the same [number of registered voters] as there are Brits overseas who could vote, so it is potentially quite a large number of people,” he said.

A record 285,000 overseas voters were registered as of the time of the 2017 UK general election, according to a January 2024 House of Commons research briefing. Darrington said the number could reach as many as 800,000 by the time of the next UK general election—due by January 2025—which he described as a “significant” number, particularly in certain constituencies.

“In a seat like Kensington or Chelsea or Winchester, there could be more than 2,000 [overseas voters] who are on the electoral register, so it’s not totally insignificant,” he said.


Voting problems

Yet Darrington pointed to issues with the voting process for British citizens living overseas.

“Unlike other nations, voting at embassies or online voting has been ruled out,” he said, noting that postal voting presents difficulties due to the limited period available for ballots to be sent and returned from overseas during an election.

In this regard, proxy voting is considered the best solution, allowing voters overseas to appoint someone living in the UK to vote on their behalf.

“Even that is really inadequate … how do you know your proxy is going to actually vote or vote the way you want to?” Darrington said.


Campaign issues

The British Overseas Voters Forum is campaigning on a number of issues affecting British citizens living abroad, including frozen pensions, access to UK bank accounts and the rights of British citizens with overseas spouses.

In Asia, only British citizens living in the Philippines have the benefit of indexed pensions. Those retiring in other countries, such as Japan, will not see their annual amounts adjusted for inflation, Darrington explained, noting that the different approach is reportedly due to the UK’s various treaty obligations.

He also cited the example of a Japan-based British professor who could not bring his Japanese spouse to live in the UK due to the income threshold, which recently “almost doubled.”

“This is a fundamental human right,” he said, adding that, combined with the frozen pension issue, such issues pose a terrible dilemma for many British citizens living overseas.

“If you’re retired and you live overseas with a foreign national partner, you have a choice. You can move back to the UK to get your [indexed] pension and you leave your partner behind, or you stay with your partner and forfeit your [indexed] pension,” he said.

Darrington suggested that overseas voters be allowed to vote at embassies, a method currently available to citizens of a number of countries, including Japan.

Another way of enfranchising overseas voters would be the establishment of specific constituencies for them, as already practiced in France, Italy and a few other European nations as well as some nations in South America and Africa. Under such a system, overseas voters would elect an MP “to represent citizens in a dedicated geographic area,” giving Parliament the benefit of lawmakers with access to a “wealth of international experience.”

Darrington’s forum plans to campaign “constituency by constituency” on these issues and others for the benefit of overseas voters, particularly in the lead-up to the next general election.

“We’ve not had the opportunity to do it before, but now, because we are all voters and all belong to constituencies, we need to come together in each constituency to talk to and lobby MPs and candidates,” he said.

Darrington urged British citizens living abroad to vote and to consider supporting the non-aligned forum, and its efforts to represent such issues to UK lawmakers.

“This is a big opportunity,” he said.