Denied at the ballot box: 'For the first time in my life I had to fight for my vote'
PUBLISHED: 16:35 24 May 2019 | UPDATED: 16:44 24 May 2019
European citizens trying to vote in Norfolk were turned away from the ballot box amid confusion over registration forms.
Thousands nationwide complained on Twitter using the hashtag #DeniedMyVote, as the Electoral Commission blamed "short notice" of the UK's participation in the polls.
Julien Beghain, who moved to Norwich from Belgium with his partner in September last year, turned up at his local polling station at the Christ Church Centre, on Magdalen Road, yesterday but was told he was not able to vote, he said he felt "betrayed".
Mr Beghain, who is studying computer sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA), said: "I was really disappointed, we are very involved in climate change campaigning and we felt as EU citizens it was the last chance to vote."
The 34-year-old had filled out a form called a UC1 form, which EU citizens had to complete to declare they would be voting in the UK and not their country of birth. It had to be returned by May 7. But he was told the form was never received.
He said: "When I arrived they checked the list, I was on the list but it was crossed over and there was a letter G next to my name.
"So they told me I was on the register but I could not vote for this election, but I would be allowed to vote in a local election."
"At first I didn't fully understand," Mr Beghain said. "When I left the polling station I called the election office and they told me I didn't send my UC1 form, but I sent it.
"Actually I received it on May 7, the day I registered to vote. I filled the form in right away, and I sent it back right away. Three days later I received a letter saying everything was in order, I was fully registered, and I did not have to do anything else."
A spokesman for Norwich City Council said this was the only complaint they had received and added: "We're not aware of any instances of errors on our part which meant people couldn't vote."
But Mr Beghain's experience was mirrored across the country and county.
Wisner Gomes tweeted and said: "My council, South Norfolk Council, sent me a letter stating that they didn't receive the forms on time. Whereas that was two weeks prior to the elections."
However South Norfolk Council and Broadland Council managing director and returning officer, Trevor Holden, said he believed in this case the form had been received after the May 7 deadline.
He said the councils had written to anyone who needed to fill in the form, and while the majority had returned their paperwork on time, some had not.
He said: "For all returning officers the overriding principle is to enable people to be on the register and to be able to vote. We would do everything to enable someone o vote if we could but to be able to have they had to return that form by that deadline.
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"The key message is it's really unfortunate that some people were not able to complete their registration prior to the deadline. We've got responsibility to make sure people get their registration."
In West Norfolk a spokesman said there were nine voters unable to cast their ballot, out of 5,600 who were written to, to remind them to change their registration.
The spokesman said there were "no errors due to the election timetable".
A Breckland Council spokesman said: "We received a very small number of queries relating to electoral registration prior to the European Union elections, which were resolved by our Elections team. We are now proceeding with the verification process of votes made and will carry out the count on Sunday, with the results for the district expected to be announced around 10pm."
The Electoral Commission said they "understand the frustration" the situation has caused and attributed the problem to the "very short notice" on the UK's participation in the European elections.
EU citizens must transfer their vote from their member state to the UK in a process which must be done 12 working days in advance of the poll, a process the Electoral Commission said "could be made easier".
"The very short notice from the government of the UK's participation in these elections impacted on the time available for awareness of this process amongst citizens, and for citizens to complete the process," it said in a statement.
British and European politicians said they were concerned about the reports.
Nicola Sturgeon said: "Just spoken to a constituent at a polling station who is from Poland, been here for years but wasn't allowed to vote...even though he's on register. It is outrageous."
European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said: "Worrying reports of EU citizens in UK being denied the right to vote and told to vote 'at home'. The scale of this apparent problem needs to be investigated."
Former mayor of Norwich and Green Party councillor Martin Schmierer tweeted: "As an EU citizen I'm glad I got to vote today and could vote for a pro EU party like The Green Party.
Shocked to hear that others have not been able to do so in the #EUElections2019. If true this would be a national (and ultimately international) disgrace!"
Citing the Electoral Commission's guidance for polling station staff, the European Parliament said errors could be corrected up to 9pm on Thursday, so that names can be entered or reinstated on the register in time to vote before polls close at 10pm.
But when Mr Beghain cited this guidance, he said he was still denied his vote as the council could not locate his form.
He said: "It's not like every other election, and it is about Brexit, I was telling my girlfriend I'm from Belgium, it's very normal to receive your polling card and we have to go and vote so that's the first time I'm here in England, I'm a new resident, it's a new feeling to have to fight to vote.
"For the first time in my life I had to fight for my vote."