Britain is facing yet another election on Thursday and is still wrestling with the repercussions of its vote to leave the European Union. But I, an immigrant living in England, haven’t had to put up a fight to vote in elections and referendums in which immigration has been such a key issue.
When my family and I moved to Britain from the U.S., I assumed I wouldn’t be allowed to vote because I’m not a British citizen. But we arrived amid an ongoing slew of elections and referendums, starting with Scotland almost deciding to leave the U.K., and ― besides being heaven for a political junkie like me ― all the campaigning made me want to pin down the British voting rules.
So I called my local election office and the person I spoke with confirmed what the U.K. government website stated: “British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens aged 18 or over who are resident in the U.K. or Gibraltar will be eligible to vote.” As a dual Canadian-EU citizen, I was thrilled because Canada is a member of the Commonwealth, a group of countries that mostly used to be part of the British Empire. I was also eligible because I wasn’t in prison and hadn’t been found guilty of “corrupt or illegal practices in connection with an election,” so that was nice.
I lived in the U.S. for decades but couldn’t vote because I never became a citizen. My right to vote in Canada, where I only got to mark a ballot once before leaving, expired long ago after I had lived in the U.S. for more than five straight years. But I now had the chance to vote again. I registered on the U.K. government website in time to participate in the 2015 British general election, where voters chose their local member of Parliament. I soon received my first “poll card” in the post, which told me when and where to vote.
The day of the election, I strode to the polling station, listed on the poll card as a “caravan,” or trailer. I could have voted by post but I wanted to do it in person. The white-paneled caravan played a big part in a major election ― in which the outcome would decide the prime minister ― but its appearance was modest, almost as if it were afraid to let its voice be heard.
The election worker inside confirmed my address and, despite my strange accent, gave me a ballot. I marked my choice and left. The election took a heavy toll on two major parties as their leaders quit in the wake of David Cameron’s re-election, but I felt as elated as a winning candidate and relished my first vote in more than 30 years.
About a year later, I received another poll card in the post and was back at the caravan, this time to vote for the mayor of London. Again, the vote was significant as the city elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan.
National and London voters had chosen two men who opposed the U.K. leaving the EU, and Cameron was so confident he could win a referendum on the issue that he called one, which gave me a third chance to vote in a little over a year. Election fatigue? It didn’t get my vote ― I had too much catching up to do after more than three decades.
My being qualified to vote went to the heart of one of the themes of the Brexit campaign: how welcome immigrants should be in Britain. The pro-EU “Remain” camp was more open to the free movement of foreigners, and what better way to make a foreigner feel welcome than to allow him to take part in your country’s democratic process? The anti-EU “Leave” camp, however, backed tighter border controls and might question if a non-British citizen should have the right to vote. After all, neither the U.S. nor Canada allow foreigners to vote in general elections.
Voting rules raise questions about where to draw the line on democracy. Even I wonder if I deserve the right to vote. I think I do because I live in the U.K., pay taxes and am an informed voter who doesn’t take the right lightly. But is it time for the U.K. to let go of empire-era rules, like it’s letting go of the EU?
Cameron lost the Brexit referendum, which went on to have a global impact. Only about a year after being re-elected, he joined the list of resigned party leaders in this unpredictable and extended British voting season. Theresa May replaced him and became Britain’s second female prime minister. She wasn’t chosen via general election; her Conservative party picked her. Now she, too, faces an election. My voting streak, meanwhile, continues.