Ministers have been accused of deliberately making it hard for 400,000 predominantly young and poor people to vote – while spending millions on helping rich expats to cast their ballots.
Election chiefs have protested over rules which prevent those without a permanent home from registering to vote online, a process quicker than “boiling an egg” the Government boasts.
Instead, they must print out and return a form, when – as one electoral administrator pointed out – they are the people least likely “to have a printer, never mind the room to house it”.
Meanwhile, the Government is changing the law to allow Britons living abroad to easily register and vote in UK elections. Many of those expats are pensioners, who are more likely to vote Conservative than any other group.
Now The Independent has learnt that the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) will protest to the Cabinet Office about the unfair hurdles faced by those without a permanent address in order to register to vote. This is thought to include thousands of sofa-surfing young professionals and those forced into short-term lets.
Labour said the situation was another example of the Conservatives “giving handouts to the wealthiest whilst disenfranchising the poor and vulnerable”.
And the Big Issue Foundation, which supports vendors selling the magazine, condemned a “barrier to democracy for people who want to play a full part in society”.
Stephen Robertson, the foundation’s chief executive, said: “Just because you are experiencing poverty and homelessness doesn’t mean you don’t have the same ambitions.
“That includes wanting to participate in democracy, but that will not be possible of you don’t have access to a printer in order to register to vote.”
Under the rules, anyone without a permanent home cannot register online but must print out a “local connection” form and return it to their local council.
One electoral administrator, Dave Jones, said: “The people in our society least likely to be able to afford to have a printer, never mind the room to house it, are the only ones expected to print their own form.
“Alternatively, they have to contact their local electoral services office, with many offices passed from call centre pillar to call centre post.
“Our registration rates would be catastrophically low if all electors were expected to do this.”
One estimate is that up to 400,000 people are affected, including “sofa surfers” relying on friends for a roof over their heads, as well as people in hostels and homeless on the street.
Mr Jones suggested a similar number of overseas voters would register once the “15-year rule” on residency abroad is scrapped, with a “staggering” difference in resources.
Changing IT systems will cost at least £800,000, ministers have acknowledged – with unknown significant extra costs for local authorities.
Around 500 overseas voters are currently registered for each local authority, compared with just a few dozen people of no fixed address.
“The Government has put significant money and electoral registration staff into registering overseas voters,” Mr Jones said.
“To find ourselves working within a system that makes it harder to register for the most disadvantaged, while resources are thrown at citizens who are not even required to register, does not sit easily with our professional conscience.”
It “wouldn’t need much tweaking” to IT systems to allow online registration of people without a permanent residential address, he said.
Cat Smith, Labour’s spokesperson for voter engagement, said: “It’s perverse that while the Government are enfranchising expats who haven’t lived in the UK for over 15 years, they are placing barriers in the way of voting for people living in the UK without a permanent address.
“There is no reason that everyone except those without a permanent address should be able to register online, especially given the difficulty of accessing a printer if you are homeless.
“Once again, the Conservatives are giving handouts to the wealthiest whilst disenfranchising the poor and vulnerable.”
John Turner, the AEA’s chief executive, said: “We intend to raise the issue of the registration of the homeless at our regular meeting next week with the Cabinet Office.
“It is now 17 years since declarations of local connection were introduced. Given the length of time that has elapsed, we believe that the current provisions need to be reviewed.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "This Government is committed to ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote is able to do so, addressing the barriers for all under registered groups to ensure that everyone can participate in the democratic process.
"At the same time, we will not deny British citizens - from all political parties - who were born in the UK and have moved abroad the opportunity to register to vote and have their say in the way their country is governed."