Overseas Voting Rights Under the Spotlight
The recent announcement that the British government will act to extend overseas voting rights to all citizens (though not in time for expat Britons to vote in the planned EU membership referendum), irrespective of how long they have been living outside of the UK has put expat voting rights under the spotlight.
At present British citizens can vote from overseas in General and European elections, so long as they have not lived outside of the UK for more than 15 years. The “15 year rule” has generated quite a bit of controversy because, with an estimated 5.6 million British citizens living overseas, it causes a substantial number of people to be disenfranchised.
The European Commission has gone so far as saying that Britain is “punishing” its expatriates for leaving the country by denying them the right to vote. “The right to vote is one of the fundamental rights of citizenship. It is part of the very fabric of democracy,” said Vivian Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner, in a statement made in 2014.
However, far from being an anachronism, Britain’s expatriate voting rules are actually among the most relaxed in the world. The vast majority of the world’s migrants and expats are unable to continue to have a say in how their countries are run and many of those expats who do have voting rights find that they are subject to stricter recent residency conditions than imposed by the UK.
How Do Expat Voting Rights Vary Across the World?
The Hansard Society, a British think tank, has looked at the various ways in which countries regularly holding elections allow nationals living abroad to participate.
Their analysis shows that a sizeable chunk (47%) of the 115 countries holding regular elections only allow votes to be cast in person, effectively disenfranchising citizens living overseas (albeit with some allowances made for votes to be cast at the embassy in their country of residence).
A further 3.5% only permit voting by proxy — a process often fraught with logistical difficulties. Proxy voting in the United Kingdom, for example, entails nominating someone months ahead of the vote to personally attend the correct polling station in the constituency in which the overseas resident is registered.
The remaining half accommodate overseas voting through postal voting or a combination of postal votes and proxy voting, but with recent residency conditions of varying degrees of complexity in a number of cases.
In some cases — the United States and Germany for instance — voting rights do not expire and residents living abroad are free to vote by mail in all national-level elections irregardless of how long they have lived outside of their home country.
However, many other countries impose strict recent residency conditions.
If you’re Canadian, for example, and hoping to vote in in your election later this year then be warned that you may vote within five years of leaving Canada. Australians only remain enfranchised for the first six years after leaving (something I find particularly perplexing in a country with compulsory voting…). New Zealanders, meanwhile, face some of the strictest conditions, with citizens only being able to vote from overseas if they have been resident in the country within three years prior to the election.
Are France and Italy Leading the Way in Expat Voting Rights?
Since 2012, France’s estimated 2.5 million expatriates have not only been able to vote (they could previously vote in the French constituency in which they were last resident) but could also elect their own parliamentarians. The development has led some commentators to believe that France is leading the way in terms of expat voting rights and representation.
11 overseas constituencies have been established spanning enormous areas – the largest stretching from the northern reaches of Russia to the South Island of New Zealand and encompassing thousands of miles of Polynesian islands; and the smallest covering just Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
There is some evidence that, despite the ludicrous size of the constituencies, the move has been popular with French voters. More than a million French expats took part in the 2012 elections. Fewer than 30,000 Britons cast ballots from abroad at the 2015 British general election, by contrast.
That said, the move has not been universally popular. For example, Phillippe Marlière, a professor of French politics living in London, opposed the elections on practical and political grounds, believing that French people living abroad are not actually in need of additional representation. At the time of the 2012 French elections he said:
“I decided to leave France. No one pushed me out. In terms of political rights and representation I have less of a say when it comes to deciding matters in France… When it comes to deciding on matters of taxation, you know, I’m not there; I don’t pay my taxes there. In a way I can’t be out of it and at the same time claim rights.”
Italy meanwhile has been electing expatriate representatives to represent the estimated 3 million Italians living overseas since 2006. Split into four constituencies — Europe, North and Central America, Latin America and Africa-Asia-Oceania — Italians living abroad can elect 12 out of the 630 members of the Italian lower house and six of the country’s 315 senators.
At the 2015 British General Election only the Liberal Democrats — who now hold just eight of the 650 seats in the House of Commons — suggested they would explore international constituencies for the UK. But with an estimated 300,000 Britons moving abroad every year to join the millions already living away from the UK, is now the time to consider better ways of representing their interests in Westminster?
Have you voted in your home country while living overseas? Do you care? What do you think of the French and Italian systems of vast international constituencies? Share your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.