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Brexit ripped my European citizenship away

Tens of thousands of British citizens living abroad may have been denied their right to vote in the general election, campaigners warn, as expats from Spain to Japan say they have not received their ballot packs in time.

Adam Robson, 26, an English teacher in the Japanese city of Kashiwa, north-east of Tokyo, said his pack arrived on Monday.

Judging by how long it took for a friend’s postcard to arrive from his former constituency in Sunderland in north-east England, it could take about a week for his postal vote to reach the UK.

“I’ve sent it out anyway, at least to say I psychologically voted,” he told i.

Mr Robson said he registered to vote as soon as the election was announced on 22 May, while he was in the process of relocating to Japan. “It’s always been important for me to vote, I have voted in every election that I ever had the chance to vote in,” he added. “I feel disappointed in a system that has clearly failed.”

Eric Jordan, 63, who has lived in Bangkok, Thailand, since 1996, received his postal vote on Monday, two weeks after the local authority in his former constituency in south London said it sent it out.

Mr Jordan said he decided to be a “guinea pig” to test the postal vote system from Thailand, as his vote was being cast in a Labour safe seat. “It doesn’t matter who I voted for, they will win,” he told i.

British citizens Steve Desson, left, and Richard Hill, who both live in Spain, expressed their frustrations with the postal vote system (Photo: Steve Desson/Richard Hill)

He even asked for his ballot pack to be sent to a business address in central Bangkok to see whether it would make a difference. “It still failed,” he said of his experiment. “For posterity I will post it anyway.”

An estimated 3.5 million British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are now eligible to vote in general elections, after the Government introduced “votes for life” in January. Previously, Britons who had lived overseas for more than 15 years lost this right.

“It’s OK for the Government to agree that we do have that right, but then they rob us of that right by not putting the system in place,” said Richard Hill, 73, who lives in the coastal Spanish city of Alicante with his wife.

He said he had not received his ballot pack as of Wednesday, despite applying for a postal vote in his former constituency in Portsmouth well ahead of the 19 June deadline. “We are very, very angry about it,” he told i. “People tend to give up when they’re faced with a situation like this.”

Mr Hill, president of the Brexpats in Spain International network, which informs Britons of their post-Brexit rights and responsibilities, said the group has about 45,000 members across its social media platforms, and many have complained of not receiving their ballot papers.

He has been calling for a change to the postal vote system, saying the UK should adopt online voting for citizens overseas, like France.

“We and [campaign group] British in Europe advised the British government that with the postal vote system, unless they organised it quicker, people would still be disenfranchised,” he said.

“The result is exactly what we expected to happen, given the short notice for the election… The present system just doesn’t work.”

David Simons, 51, wanted to post his vote from Majadahonda on the outskirts of Madrid, but after his ballot papers arrived on Tuesday, the post office in the Spanish capital “shook their heads with pity” when he asked how to send it back to Windsor in Berkshire so that it arrives on Thursday.

“They offered me a courier service that couldn’t guarantee delivery that day, for nearly €50,” he told i. “Disappointed and feeling disenfranchised – again!

“Brexit ripped my European citizenship away… I hoped I might be able to exercise my vote in the UK at long last, but it looks like I won’t be able to.

“There needs to be a rethink on how to make voting more straightforward. It’s the 21st Century… I can verify my identity with the chip in my passport, so why not use that in an electronic system?”

Local councils are responsible for sending postal ballot forms to voters, who must return the paperwork by 10pm on polling day. But voters around the UK as well as abroad have reported they are yet to receive their ballot ahead of Thursday.

Delays have been blamed on Brexit, understaffed local government teams, problems with printers, and Royal Mail deliveries. The Local Government Association (LGA) called for a review of an already “overburdened” system put under extra pressure by an “unprecedented increase” in people voting by post.

A Government spokesperson said it has been working closely with the Electoral Commission, Royal Mail, Returning Officers and print suppliers to resolve localised issues they have been experiencing.

The Government said Royal Mail will be completing regular “sweeps” across the postal network to collect completed packs on polling day.

The LGA said it expected postal votes to have increased by 20 per cent since the 2019 election when 21 per cent of voters voted by post. More than 1.3 million postal vote applications were made between 22 May and 19 June this year.

Postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake was said to be “urgently” investigating a failure to get ballot packs to people in some constituencies in time for polling day.

“People living abroad, many of us are on pensions, many of us still pay tax in the UK, many of us have families still in the UK, and therefore we have a right to vote in the UK elections… it affects us and our families,” said Mr Hill.

Asked who he would have voted for, he said: “Not the Tories.”

Campaign groups British Overseas Voters Forum, New Europeans UK and Unlock Democracy are investigating how well the postal system will perform for Britons overseas on 4 July.

Danish national Else Kvist, head of campaigns for New Europeans UK, said she was among more than one million EU citizens who were unable to vote in European Parliament elections due to strict rules on voting outside of the bloc.

“It is such a shame to see that the same is now happening to Britons living abroad,” she told i. “We now have a situation where we could see tens of thousands of Britons living and working overseas denied their vote.”

Steve Desson, 65, who lives with his wife in Mijas in Málaga, said he had registered to vote in UK elections as an overseas resident shortly after moving to Spain six years ago. He has always voted for the Conservative Party but was planning on supporting Labour this year.

After the election was announced, Mr Desson assumed he would be sent a postal vote, but realised too late that he needed to apply for one by 19 June.

He said many British people he knows in Spain were in the same boat. “We just assumed that they would send us a postal vote because we’re registered electors, apparently that’s not the case,” he told i. “Instead what I got was the voting card to vote in person, and it was sent by air mail, which is obviously ridiculous.”

Mr Desson then tried to arrange for his daughter to vote on his behalf as a proxy, but she lives in Gosport in Hampshire, 100 miles from his former constituency in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and it was too late for her to apply for a postal vote.

“I’m now effectively screwed,” said Mr Desson. “I feel like, as usual, the expat population around the world is ignored. We feel neglected.

“It’s frustrating, disappointing, and just makes you feel not valued as a British citizen.”

Clarissa Killwick, a campaigner at Beyond Brexit – UK citizens in Italy, said she flew back to the UK on Tuesday to cast her ballot in person as she did not trust the postal vote system.

“Others are not so lucky,” she said. “In our group, some people have not received their postal votes or too late for them to be returned in time.”

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