UK residents living abroad are resorting to paying expensive couriers to return ballots in time for the 10pm EU referendum deadline, after election officials only sent them out via international post earlier this week.
Voters have told the Guardian that they are afraid they will be disenfranchised because of the late or non-arrival of ballot papers at their foreign addresses.
One Switzerland-based voter said she only received her ballot from election officials in Haringey, north London, on Wednesday – the day before the referendum. Another in New York spent £50 sending a late-arriving ballot back to Redbridge council.
Other voters, stranded in Europe because of a strike by French air traffic controllers, have been told their predicament is not sufficient for them to arrange an emergency proxy vote.
The Electoral Commission said medical emergencies and being unexpectedly away for work may constitute grounds for emergency proxy, but applications must be made by 5pm.
Martin Porter, an advertising executive currently working in New York, only got his ballot papers a couple of days before the referendum. Determined to cast his vote, he spent $79 sending it back to Redbridge with UPS.
“I just checked and it did get delivered this morning, so it was kind of worth it,” he said.
A British woman who recently moved from the UK to Switzerland resorted to using an expensive courier after she applied to Haringey for a postal vote but it did not arrive.
“They confirmed that the new forms were issued on Monday 20 June 2016,” she said, asking not to be named. “The forms were sent ‘expedited’ post in the end, and I received them yesterday. By sheer coincidence I had to be home in the daytime and checked my postbox. I completed and returned the forms via overnight courier guaranteed 9am delivery (price for this not met by the council, of course) today, on the day of the EU referendum.”
Michelle Lombard, a finance and business consultant currently based in Hong Kong, said she had been expecting the papers to arrive for the last two weeks, but started getting worried when she saw friends post about their votes on Facebook about one week ago. “I still expected it to arrive any day and thought the delay was because it was for an overseas postal vote.”
When polling day arrived and she still did not have the ballot papers, she emailed Haringey council, who told her that it had been sent out on 1 June and they had no control over the ballot papers once they had been posted.
“I feel let down by the process of democracy. This is probably the most significant vote that Britons will face or participate in for the foreseeable future,” she said. “It will have a huge impact on the country no matter which way it goes. If the vote goes against what I was planning on voting, I’d be even more disappointed. This is a truly one-person-one-vote situation and an individual vote therefore really matters.”
She added that at least four other friends in Hong Kong had not received their papers from different councils across the UK.
The Electoral Commission said it had recommended councils send out postal votes by 6 June and that any late requests submitted by the 8 June deadline should be sent out straight away. However a spokeswoman said that under election law “if a postal ballot doesn’t arrive it can’t be resent until 17 June”. That was to “give sufficient time for the ballot paper to have arrived before it was considered lost”.
A spokesman for Haringey council said the Switzerland resident’s late ballot was “the only ballot sent out on the 20th” and none had gone out later. He confirmed her ballot had arrived and would be counted.
He said voters had contacted its election officials about problems receiving postal ballots on more than a dozen occasions.
“Some people move house and we have organised special delivery for them, some people live in a number of properties and some people are living at different addresses while they travel,” he said. “We are looking at the detail of any concerns that have been raised with us.”