Hundreds of expat and foreign-born voters could find themselves unable to vote in local elections in Brussels Sunday after an administrative mishap.
While some may already have discovered the registration problem, many of the disenfranchised voters may only find out they are not registered when they go to the polls in commune elections across the Brussels region.
The registration issue, which required the intervention of the federal government earlier this year, has taken the shine off a major campaign to encourage more non-Belgian voters to register that managed to double sign ups by foreigners.
“We’re very sad this happened,” said Hélène Herman, communication officer at the Brussels Region’s unit assisting communes in the election process. “We’ll surely make sure this doesn’t happen again [in the next election],” she added.
According to figures from the Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis, 23 percent of Brussels’ residents are non-Belgian EU nationals, and another 12 percent are non-EU nationals. A large chunk of them is eligible to vote and in some communes the proportion of foreign residents is close to 50 percent.
Neither the regional government nor the postal service has a total count of how many registration forms got stuck.
While voting is compulsory for Belgian nationals, it is optional for foreigners. About 14 percent of EU residents living in Belgium registered to vote in local elections held six years ago.
In the run up to the registration deadline at the end of July, the Brussels region and a handful of NGOs ran campaigns to encourage non-Belgian voters to exercise their right to vote.
“We sent letters to every non-Belgian that can vote … There was the form in French and Dutch and a little envelope to send the form,” said Herman.
But to many potential registrants, the envelopes (with a barcode where the stamp should go) looked as if they were pre-paid and hundreds sent it back to their town hall without a stamp. “It was written on the envelope but maybe it wasn’t clear for people who don’t speak French or Dutch,” said Herman.
The issue could extend to several hundreds of people, according to Thomas Huddleston, coordinator at VoteBrussels, an EU-funded campaign targeted at non-Belgians in Brussels to boost voter registration.
The Belgian postal service initially refused to deliver the letters, holding on to them over the summer. They eventually forwarded them to local town halls weeks or months after the registration deadline, Herman said. “It was very late.”
Barbara Van Speybroeck, a spokesperson for the postal service bpost, said it simply followed the usual procedure: “Letters that aren’t stamped come back. It is an automated process,” she said.
Neither the regional government nor the postal service has a total count of how many registration forms got stuck. The City of Brussels, one of 19 communes in Brussels, had about 150 non-Belgians affected by the mishap.
The Brussels Region in September asked the federal government what to do about the issue. The government responded that local communes could consider any registration forms that were sent in time to be valid and manually add them to the lists of eligible voters, according to correspondence seen by POLITICO. It is unclear how many communes took into account the federal government’s advice.
Both the Brussels Region as well as VoteBrussels pointed out a lot of new non-Belgian voters did manage to sign up for Sunday’s election. About 50,000 non-Belgians registered — double the amount of registrations in the last local election in 2012. Half are first-time voters in Belgium. “I do think it was actually pretty effective,” said Huddlestone.