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UK Government faces legal action from EU citizens who allege they were 'denied right to vote'

The i logo The i 26/05/2019 Nick Duffy
a person standing in front of a sign © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

EU citizens who were left unable to vote in the European elections are pursuing legal action against the UK government.

Campaigners allege that hundreds of EU nationals living in the UK were turned away from polling stations on Thursday due to widespread admin failures around the processing of legal voter declaration forms.

Many British nationals living elsewhere within the EU also spoke out, to complain that postal ballots had not arrived in time for the election deadline.

Two advocacy groups representing Brits abroad and UK-based EU citizens, British in Europe and the 3 million, are now planning to bring legal action.

Legal action crowdfunder smashes target

A crowdfunding page raised more than £40,000 to cover costs within a day of launching on Saturday, more than double the £20,000 being sought to bring a test case for judicial review.

The groups claim voters suffered "discriminatory" treatment as a result of "mass failure by the Electoral Commission, the British Government and local councils".

The crowdfunding campaign to cover legal costs doubled its £20,000 target in just one day 

European Council President Donald Tusk, next to his wife Malgorzata Tusk, casts his vote during the European Parliament Elections at a polling station in Sopot, Poland May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel © Thomson Reuters European Council President Donald Tusk, next to his wife Malgorzata Tusk, casts his vote during the European Parliament Elections at a polling station in Sopot, Poland May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel John Halford, of Bindmans LLP, who is representing the campaigners, said in a release: “The right to vote is the foundation for all citizenship rights.

"Last Thursday saw a large scale, systematic, openly discriminatory denial of that right.

"The case we plan to bring will show that this is not something the law will tolerate and that there must be accountability and consequences.”

Nicolas Hatton of the 3million said: "Imagine being turned away at the polling station in elections you always voted in?

"Our voting rights matter, they are part of our fundamental status as citizens and part of our legal and constitutional heritage, protected by EU law"

a screenshot of a cell phone © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd "We should not have been treated like second class citizens and we are calling those who believe in fairness to support us challenge the Government in court over the disenfranchisement, discrimination and disrespect of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU.

"Our voting rights matter, they are part of our fundamental status as citizens and part of our legal and constitutional heritage, protected by EU law. The time has come to stand up for them."

Jane Golding, co-chair of British in Europe, added: "Fewer than 40 per cent of UK citizens abroad can actually vote in the UK and administrative problems and cuts to resources have reduced this number even further.

"Brits abroad #DeniedMyVote is a perennial problem in the UK and needs fixing. We are asking supporters to help us and the3million explore whether we can challenge this legally through the courts."

The groups flagged issues with the government weeks before the election and have now urged supporters to pause donations to the campaign after passing the funding target for the test case.

Calls for inquiry

Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson has also demanded an Electoral Commission investigation into the scandal.

In a letter to the Electoral Commission on Friday, Ms Swinson said: "It is an outrage that so many people were denied the right to vote in yesterday’s European elections.

Liberal Democrats deputy leader Jo Swinson MP called for a review by the Electoral Commission (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Jo Swinson holding a box © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd "Not only were European citizens turned away at polling stations, but many UK citizens abroad were also disenfranchised due to breakdowns in the postal ballot system.

“There must be an immediate inquiry to understand what went wrong and a review of the current process to ensure it never happens again. In the UK, in 2019, no one should be denied their right to vote.”

Government 'recognises frustration'

The Cabinet Office did not immediately respond to a comment request from i.

A spokesperson for the prime minister told the BBC on Friday: "I'm aware of the reports but the Government doesn't have a role in the administration of the polls so can't comment on numbers or the accuracy of reports.

"However, I recognise that there is frustration.

"The running of polls is rightly a matter for independent returning officers. It is for them to put in place the necessary planning and contracts with suppliers to deliver items like poll cards and postal votes to meet necessary timetables.

"I am sure the Electoral Commission will take any reports seriously."

'Not good enough'

An Electoral Commission spokesperson acknowledged the "frustrations" of EU citizens who were "unable to vote" in the election.

Writing in The Guardian on Friday, Electoral Commission chief Bob Posner added: "There were issues as risks materialised, most notably and regrettably the issues experienced by some citizens of other EU member states intending to vote."

A polling card for the European elections to be held on Thursday May 23, 2019 (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Wire/PA Images A polling card for the European elections to be held on Thursday May 23, 2019 (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images) Mr Posner said the Electoral Commission had repeatedly pressed for legal changes to the voter declaration process for EU nationals, adding that the failure to change the law was "in truth not good enough".

"While it is understandable that no changes were made in the face of the Government’s stern assurance that the UK would not participate in the election, it is deeply disappointing and in truth not good enough."

He added: "In the coming weeks and months, we will address this and other issues as part of our requirement to report on the conduct of the elections.

"There are clearly broader lessons to learn. We have argued for some time that the failure of governments and parliament to properly maintain and update electoral law, and to address the pressures on local authorities, has built up significant risks for well-run elections.

"It is time that these warnings are properly heard and acted upon."

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