Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On the issue of expatriate voting rights

Do citizens who are living and working abroad, particularly for an extended period of time, still have the same voting rights as the citizens who choose to stay in their home country? Should these expatriates be granted the same level of access to exercising their right to franchise, even if they haven't lived in their home country for several years?

This is surely a very controversial subject and it will continue to be a hotly debated issue as the global economy continues to grow and expand. A growing number of people are now working remotely or seeking new career opportunities in countries other than their own, all while retaining citizenship in their homeland rather than seeking citizenship where they currently reside. And what about students attending school abroad?

Most recently, a very significant change was made in Canada in regards to the voting rights of expatriates. The current Canadian government has stated that expatriates who have lived abroad for a period of more than five years are no longer be able to cast ballots and participate in the country's elections.

The rationale, according to Chief Justice George Strathy, is that non-residents should not be able to vote on laws that “have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives.” Indeed, if legislators are passing laws related to the infrastructure of a country, like schools and roads, but the expatriate never accesses these schools and roads, should they still have a say in how these issues are resolved?

Unsurprisingly, this ruling has consequently resulted in a significant backlash from the expatriate community, including celebrated actor and octogenarian Donald Sutherland. He stated that he only has one passport – a Canadian one – and he deserves the right to vote, even if he doesn't live in Canada. He has refused American citizenship and has no interest in pursuing dual citizenship. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada nearly 40 years ago. He feels Canadian, through and through, but he cannot vote. 

Questions have been raised as to how such laws should be applied and whether they require significant revision. Should and do the circumstances matter in determining whether a person living abroad can vote? What if it's a student taking a five-year program at a university abroad? What if it is a professional, like Sutherland, who hasn't lived in Canada for years? What if it's someone who works abroad most of the time, but comes “home” on a periodic basis where his family continues to reside?

Voting rights as related to non-residents and expatriates is not unique to Canadian politics.

A major movement is taking place among the community of Swiss citizens living and working abroad, for example, calling for the implementation of electronic voting technology. Remote e-voting was recently mandated for non-resident Indians so they can vote in elections without having to make the physical journey back home. But what does “home” really mean in this context?

And this lends itself to another related issue. If expatriates are granted the right to franchise, can e-voting better accommodate their ability to cast a ballot? Postal ballots or being forced to return to a home constituency can be inconvenient at best and an overwhelming obstacle at worst. By being able to vote through e-voting machines at local embassies or voting over the Internet instantly from anywhere in the world, expatriates can have far greater access to democracy.