Concern is growing that the last minute rush to organise the EU elections could lead to legal challenges from EU citizens who have found themselves unexpectedly disenfranchised.
To register to vote here in the poll on 22-23 May, EU citizens must take part in a two-step process. As well as registering online, they must fill out and return an additional ‘UC1’ form declaring that they will not vote in their country of origin and that they intend to vote here.
The Electoral Commission wrote to all electoral registration officers earlier this month advising them to send their EU citizens the declaration form, “so they understand their options and are able to exercise their right to vote should they wish to”.
To vote in the UK, EU citizens must send back this form by Tuesday 7 May at the latest.
But Jo Platt, Labour MP for Leigh, told MPs last week that because of the “11th hour” uncertainty, returning officers have only just started the process of contacting registered european citizens, something that would normally have begun in January.
She claimed “fewer than 300 forms have been returned” so far equating to “0.015% of registered EU citizens”. LGC understands these figures date from the beginning of April.
Ms Platt said: “Yesterday the member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith, Lab) raised our concerns that thousands of EU citizens will be casting their vote in local elections but denied that same right in European elections and that many are considering legal action.”
Ms Platt called on the government to extend the deadline to return the forms to May 15, and to ensure electoral officers hand out the forms on May 2 during the local elections.
She also called on the government to absorb the costs of the last-minute arrangements rather than leaving councils to pay, and for scanned and photographed versions of the form to be accepted.
Anna Soubry (Change UK) also told MPs she has “profound concerns” about the EU elections and suspects “strongly” that there will be “many legal challenges”.
Peter Stanyon, Association of Electoral Administrators, said that as far as his organisation is aware, “most” returning officers have already sent the form out to their European citizens.
“We would have expected everybody to have done so,” he added. “And it’s in the hands of European citizens to send it back and convert their status. But there could be challenges for election staff if EU citizens have not been able to get the forms in in time. There could be complications because of that – potentially legal challenges if there is something specifically awry with the poll.”
Mr Stanyon says he expects any legal challenge would be to the government, not returning officers.
Ian Miller, the chief executive of Wyre Forest DC, said that there is some concern among returning officers that EU citizens who have not filled in the appropriate form will turn up to polling stations expecting to vote on election day. “Unless they tell us before the deadline that they want to vote here, it will be too late at that point,” he said.
Cabinet Office minister Brandon Lewis stated on Thursday in the Commons that the declaration form is ”accessible on the Electoral Commission’s and local authority websites”.
But LGC did snapshot analysis of the election webpages of 20 different councils in England and found that only four of them included links to the European Parliament voter registration form.
The Electoral Commission normally has a budget of around £1m to publicise voting in national campaigns, but confirmed that its entire budget for this year’s poll was only £686,000.
The commission’s director of communications and research, Craig Westwood said: ”Our spending on this public awareness activity will be at a lower level than we would normally spend for a similar national poll.”
Ms Soubry is also worried about the rights of EU citizens to stand for the election, after a Spanish and a Romanian citizen who intended to stand as Change UK candidates found that their intentions were blocked after the electoral commission failed to supply the reevant returning officers with the necessary information.
She added: “I am very grateful to the returning officers in Kettering who were so helpful, the Spanish, the Romanian ambassadors who directly intervened, the Secretary of State who directly intervened to provide the material, the guidance and the advice to the returning officers directly from the cabinet office because the electoral commission has failed to do it.”