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  • External voting: a GlobalIrish.ie factsheet

    Irish people living abroad currently have no voting rights. This situation is becoming somewhat unusual in an international context.

    Currently there around 115 countries and territories – including nearly all developed nations – that have systems in place to allow their emigrants to vote. And the number is growing. Even countries with very high rates of emigration, such as Italy, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico have recently allowed their expats to vote. [2013 update: Since this was written in 2007, there has been an accelerating trend toward allowing overseas citizens to vote - the number would now be substantially higher than the estimate from the 2006 study.]

    A 2006 study of countries that allow their emigrants to vote included:

    • 21 African nations
    • 13 North and South American countries
    • 15 Asian countries
    • 6 Pacific countries
    • 36 European countries.

    Sixty-five of these countries allow for external voting for everyone, while about 25 place restrictions on it, based on such factors as to whether they intend to return permanently or how long they have been away. Citizens in the US can vote no matter how long they stay away, while citizens of Britain are disqualified after fifteen years away.
    Some countries, like France, reserve seats in their parliaments for citizens who live abroad, while others vote in the constituency in which they used to live. Other countries only allow for votes in national or presidential elections.
    Some countries require their emigrants to return home to cast ballots, while others send out postal ballots, and others organise for citizens to vote in person at consulates or embassies.

    Some of the countries that allow their citizens abroad to vote include Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Britain, the Philippines and Mexico. Countries that, like Ireland, do not allow their emigrants to vote include India, Hungary, South Africa, Zimbabwe, El Salvador and Nepal. [September 2013 update: India, South Africa, El Salvador, Hungary have all since announced voting rights for their emigrants. Overseas citizens from Zimbabwe are campaigning for the right to vote and a Nepalese emigrant is taking his country to court over the issue.]

    The situation in Ireland

    Ireland is in a highly unusual situation in our increasingly globalised world, in not allowing the majority of its overseas citizens any say in the political process. Members of the armed forces and the diplomatic services are able to vote in Dail elections, while only NUI and Trinity graduates can vote in the Seanad. Beyond these exceptions, only those who are ordinarily resident may vote.

    Many people within Ireland are at first leery of allowing emigrants to vote, pointing out that, with such a high number of emigrants abroad, Ireland would be overwhelmed. Others point to Ireland’s system of proportional representation, and suggest that elections in close constituencies could be held up waiting for a box of votes to arrive from Boston or Berlin.

    Still others, in an odd inversion of the eighteenth century’s American Revolutionary rallying cry for democracy, proclaim, “No representation without taxation” – an argument seriously undermined by the fact that no other nation seems to link expat voting with expat taxation. In fact, the US is the only developed nation that requires its citizens abroad to pay taxes on money earned abroad, and even then the only people affected are those making over $85,000.

    Some suggest that Irish people abroad quickly lose touch with the country, and can’t stay informed enough to vote responsibly. This argument is weakened by the numerous news sources available on radio and the Internet. Plus, we don’t require voters within the country to pass a current events test, so how do we know that our voters at home have been brushing up on the issues?

    Some people object to emigrant voting because they fear that voters who live in Ireland would be outnumbered by the number of people who would be eligible to vote from abroad – but most proponents of emigrant voting limit their proposals to only Irish-born people living abroad (there are just over 1 million of them). International experience would suggest that only a small proportion of those would be interested in voting. Studies in other countries that allow their emigrants to vote show that emigrants do not generally vote in a way that is radically different than those at home.

    Potential solutions

    The fact is that there is a wide variety of solutions for the emigrant voting conundrum, and every country has dealt with the issue in a different way. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. While a 2006 study found that 65 countries allowed external voting for all, 26 countries placed restrictions on which of their expats could vote, making the right conditional on the length of time they have been away, their intent to return, or their location. A few countries disqualify citizens from voting after a certain period of time – the UK allows expats to vote only for the first 15 years away, for example.

    Some nations restrict voting to only certain types of elections – the most commonly allowed voting is for national and presidential elections. It is less common to allow emigrants to cast their ballots in local and regional elections, or for referendums.

    Most nations require that their emigrants vote in the last constituency where they lived, while others vote for specific emigrant representatives. Nine countries, including France, Italy and Portugal, reserve seats in their parliaments for those abroad.

    The forms of voting are also diverse – some require voters to do so in person, at either consulates or embassies or by returning home to cast the ballot; others allow voting by mail or fax, a handful by proxy, and some by a combination of the above methods.

    The Future

    It may be time for Ireland to begin examining the diversity of compromises and solutions that other nations have arrived at. Ironically, the fact that emigrant numbers are declining may make the idea of an emigrant vote more possible, as voters at home will be less threatened by a smaller number of emigrants, and as the nature of emigration becomes increasingly more of a temporary phenomenon. These decreased numbers will be one of a number of factors eroding the level of opposition to emigrant voting.

    In addition, the prospect of Seanad Reform is in view again, and the most likely outcome appears to be the extension of the right to vote by all third-level graduates, not just Trinity and NUI graduates. Presumably, reformers will continue to allow those third-level graduate Seanad voters to vote whether they are at home or abroad. This will greatly increase the number of emigrants who can vote – but the long-term effect may be even greater. Authorities will have to come up with a national system that will allow them to register voters from abroad, and to decide on how an overseas election will work. In doing so they will be setting up the structures that could pave the way for more widespread emigrant voting in the future.

    Sources:

    • Upcoming International IDEA Handbook on External Voting
    • ACE Electoral Knowledge Network
    • “Perfecting Political Diaspora��? by Peter Spiro in NYU Law Review, 2006

    Additional resources:

    For more information on the issue of emigrant political participation and links between emigrants and their home countries, see:

    Ean commentary in media outlets: