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Extending voting rights: Increasing political participation or a tokenistic gesture?

November 25th 2019

Claire Thomas considers the proposals to extend voting rights for foreign citizens living in Wales

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill was introduced before the National Assembly for Wales last week. The extensive Bill aims to establish a new and reformed legislative framework for local government elections, democracy, performance and governance. Some key highlights of the Bill include extending voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds, improving the voter registration process, amending rules around who can stand as a candidate in local government elections and creating a five year cycle for local government elections.

The Bill also introduces powers to give all foreign citizens lawfully living in Wales the opportunity to vote in and stand in local elections, irrespective of their nationality. Currently to be able to vote in a local government election you must be a British, Irish, Commonwealth or EU citizen.

We strongly support this proposal and believe that equal political rights form the basis of a fair and inclusive society. Extending voting rights to all foreign citizens enables them to participate fully by giving them a voice and a stake in their communities. These are significant factors when thinking about the extent to which people feel they ‘belong’ or feel ‘part’ of the community. The Bill sends out a strong message that they are respected members of the community.

Protecting EU nationals right to vote

There have been concerns that EU nationals may lose political rights in the event freedom of movement comes to an end. This Bill secures their right to vote after Brexit, so will hopefully allay some of the fears over the loss of rights in the future. However, Welsh Government must be mindful that some EU Citizens are at risk of losing their legal status if they fail to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. Considering this issue and to avoid losing their right to vote it is vital that all is done to ensure EU citizens complete this application.

Increasing participation   

Although we strongly support the Bill, it does raise some issues around participation. Extending the rights to vote to foreign nationals should not be a tokenistic gesture, but an opportunity to empower people to become more involved in the decisions that affect them. However, this assumes that people understand the system, that they are able to register and have access to information which enables them to take full advantage of this right. We believe that extending the right should be accompanied by a campaign which seeks to educate and inform people of the benefits of voting and includes help to register. Consideration must also be given to some of the barriers people may face, for instance during our work on inclusion a local Cllr told us that canvassers in a local area had to skip the houses of the residents who are unable to speak English, so there are certainly issues around language barriers that would need to be overcome.

The Bill is a good step forward in ensuring foreign citizens have a voice, however if it is passed resource needs to go into ensuring it does increase participation.

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