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BREXIT: Britons told to register to vote in local elections despite deal with Spain

Britain and Spain signed an agreement back in 2020 to protect post-Brexit voting rights, but British citizens wanting to vote in Spanish municipal elections still need to register for each election. Here's how.

BREXIT: Britons told to register to vote in local elections despite deal with Spain
Britons must register to vote in municipal elections. Photo: Pau BARRENA / AFP

Spain and Britain have a mutual recognition agreement on voting in local elections. But many Britons in Spain might not realise that they also need to register in order to be able to vote. With elections coming up in 2023, here’s what you need to know.

Generally speaking, if you’re a non-EU citizen, you cannot vote in elections in Spain or in the EU. However, according to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), Spain does have bilateral agreements with Norway, Iceland, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand, Peru, Paraguay, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago and, as of 2022, the United Kingdom. 

British citizens

There has been some confusion and misinformation regarding the voting rights of British citizens in Spain following Brexit. According to Spanish government guidelines, Spain and the UK have an agreement on mutual recognition of the right to vote and stand in local elections.

British citizens residing in Spain are still entitled to vote and stand for municipal elections in Spain under similar conditions as they had been able to when still EU citizens.

READ MORE: Spain enshrines in law voting rights for UK residents in local elections

Following Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, however, British citizens now do not have the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament, and still can’t vote in national elections.

Interestingly, while many might think this is somewhat of a bespoke arrangement for Brits, in reality, it isn’t, it’s similar to the bilateral agreements Spain has with the countries mentioned above. 

When The Local Spain initially reported on the agreement, there were 37 locally elected British town and city councillors in Spain, mostly in the Valencia region and Andalusia, the two Spanish regions with the highest number of British residents.

However, despite the agreement between Britain and Spain – which also protects the voting rights of Spaniards in the UK – many Britons might not realise that they have to actually register to vote, and quite possibly do it more than once.

With municipal elections next coming up in May 2023, it’s important to understand what you need to do in order to vote (or run) in your local election.

Who is eligible? 

It’s important to note that not everyone from the UK can vote in these municipal elections. You must meet a certain set of criteria to be able to do so. These are:

  • Have a legal residence permit in Spain. 
  • Have legally resided in Spain continuously for at least three years prior to your registration. 
  • Be domiciled in the municipality where you want to vote and appear in the municipal register. 

Re-registering

As a British citizen living in Spain, the reciprocal agreement between Britain and Spain is not enough. Whereas EU citizens need only register once in order to be able to vote in local elections, British citizens have to register for each election.  

The next set of upcoming elections is on May 28th, 2023 and many people might not know that they must reregister for every election they intend to vote in – not just once as they did when they were EU citizens.

Deadline

The INE states that Britons must register any time between December 1st 2022 and January 15th 2023 to be eligible to vote in the May 28th elections. 

How to register to vote in Spain

Only people included on the padrón municipal at the local town hall may vote. To be included on the register, visit your local ayuntamiento with the following documents:

  • your passport
  • proof of address (you can use utility bills or rental contract or similar)
  • a completed registration form, known as a volante de empadronamiento.

You can access the registration form via your local city or town hall website.

The process is free, and once you are registered you should visit the ayuntamiento again to declare your desire to vote. Just being on the register does not grant you voting rights, so you must actively declare in order to be included on the electoral roll. 

For the May 2023 elections, this must be completed before January 15th, 2023.

British electoral block?

There are several areas in Spain with strong concentrations of British residents. As a result, Britons can actually have a significant sway over local election results in Spain.

Though according to Spain’s national statistics body, INE, there are 282,124 Britons living legally in Spain, the Spanish government’s Migration Ministry puts that number at over 400,000 and around a quarter of them live in the province of Alicante. If we take Benidorm for example, where the 3389 Britons make up almost 5 percent of the 69,118 total inhabitants, the British vote could potentially have a significant effect on elections there.

After Britons, it is the Colombian and Ecuadorian communities that have the biggest foreign electorates in Spain, both with around 140,000 registered residents. Romania and Morocco, the citizens of which both outnumber Britons in Spain, do not have mutual voting agreements with the Spanish government and cannot vote in municipal elections.

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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