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At the Constitutional Convention in Dublin yesterday, international comparisons of voting were presented. One of the points raised was that in a 2007 study, there were 14 countries that allowed their expats to vote only in presidential elections. Those countries were:
- Central African Republic
- Côte d’Ivoire
- Dominican Republic
In keeping with the global trend of expanding the franchise for expats, however, several of those countries have added new rights for expats. This is not a definitive list but countries that in 2007 allowed only a presidential vote but now allow votes in additional types of election include:
Ecuador – a new constitution in 2008 allowed votes for representation in the national assembly, along with mayors and governors. There are six dedicated representatives in the national assembly.
Dominican Republic – expats now have votes in the Chamber of Deputies. There are two regional deputies reserved for Dominicans living in the Carribean and Latin America, 2 for Europe, 3 for Canada and the US.
Tunisia – Tunisian expats now vote for 18 seats in the 218-seat assembly.
There was also something missed at yesterday’s discussions – the distinction between out-of-country voting and the right for expats to exercise their franchise if they return home. Ireland does not allow emigrants to stay on the voting register if they intend to be away for more than 18 months. There is no legal channel for them to come home to vote.
In many other countries that have no system of absentee balloting, however, non-residents are welcome – and sometimes given assistance with travel arrangements. These include:
Lebanon – tens of thousand were reported to have returned home to vote in 2009.
Israel has no absentee ballot but Israeli citizens can fly home to vote.
Zimbabwe – The diaspora vote is a contentious issue in Zimbabwe, and thousands were reported to have flown home to vote in July.
Maltese nationals have traditionally been assisted in flying home to vote with reduced ticket prices from the national airline.
When I first started writing about emigrant voting rights back in 2006, a study had come out saying that there were 115 countries and territories around the world that allowed emigrant voting rights. The number would now be far higher – some of the countries that have introduced or are in the process of introducing voting rights or absentee ballots for overseas citizens since then include:
- Costa Rica
- South Sudan
- South Africa
As the trend toward overseas citizens voting rights continues and accelerates, Ireland’s status as a true outlier becomes more extreme.
The Constitutional Convention has conducted a survey to accompany this weekend’s discussion on whether there should be voting rights for emigrants in presidential elections. At first I welcomed this outreach and the opportunity it provided to gauge the opinion of the Irish abroad on this topic.
Unfortunately however, my enthusiasm was replaced by extreme unease when I opened the survey – because rather than straightforwardly presenting matter-of-fact options about which forms of political participation might be favoured (if any) by respondents, it instead served up a strange mix of assumption and stereotype that seemed to have been rooted in some less than flattering attitudes about Irish citizens abroad. Many of the questions had only tenuous links to the question of voting right for overseas citizens.
Respondents were asked to assess, for example, whether emigrants were likely to have “an unrealistic or distorted picture of Ireland”, whether non-taxpayers should ‘dictate’ how much tax others should pay, whether one’s primary loyalty is to Ireland or another country. Several of these questions appear to take on board assumptions frequently made by those opposed to voting rights for overseas citizens.
I was not the only one who found the survey wording alienating. I saw negative responses on Facebook and Twitter, as well as in personal conversations with people who had taken the survey. I got together with two others who have taken an interest in emigrant voting rights to compile the response I have pasted in below. I have submitted the document to the Constitutional Convention on their website as my third submission to the Convention.
Additionally, the Irish Echo in Australia has also submitted an editorial to the Constitutional Convention’s website outlining many of the same problems with the survey.
To their credit, the organisers of the Constitutional Convention have not really tried to defend the survey, and the Convention’s Secretary, Art O’Leary, invited us to respond with our criticisms as soon as he picked up on the rumble of discontent on Twitter. Speaking at an event I attended at the London School of Economics earlier this month, he acknowledged the wording of the survey was “appalling”.
Here is the text of the submission:
The Constitutional Convention survey: a response
The survey on emigrant voting conducted by the Constitutional Convention was perhaps not the best way to achieve an unbiased sampling of public opinion on emigrant voting.
One of the problematic aspects of the survey is that several of the questions seem to build in assumptions commonly used by those who oppose emigrant voting, but which are not based in fact (questions 8, 10, 11). Several of the questions have questionable relevance to the issue of emigrant voting (questions 8, 11, 13, 14). Additionally, responses to several of the questions can be interpreted in multiple or even contradictory ways (questions 7, 8, 10, 14).
To take each one (using the numbers that correspond to the survey question): (Questions 1 through 6 were questions aimed at classifying respondents, not gathering opinions.)
7. The right to vote should depend on citizenship not residence
These options are not mutually exclusive:
- A person could believe, for example, that both non-resident citizens and non-citizen residents should be allowed to vote.
- A respondent could also believe that the right to vote should be dependent on both citizenship and residence, and that only resident citizens should be allowed to vote.
A respondent who disagrees, therefore, could believe any of the following:
- the right to vote should be limited to residents
- the right to vote should be extended to all citizens and all residents
- the right to vote should be limited to only resident citizens.
8. If people are not paying for services through taxation they should not have a right to dictate the extent to which those who do should pay.
a) For this question to have any relevance to the emigrant voting issue, it would seem to require an assumption that emigrants do not pay taxes. This is, in fact, an assumption often made by opponents of emigrant voting – and it is false. Some emigrants do pay taxes: for example, all emigrants who own a home in Ireland (whether they acquired it through purchase or inheritance) are required to pay both the local household tax and the non-primary residence tax.
Additionally, some residents are net beneficiaries of taxation. (There are movements in other countries that call for the disenfranchisement of all net beneficiaries of taxation, such as welfare recipients, politicians and civil servants. It is easy to see how undemocratic this concept is when the statement is recontextualised in this way.)
b) The use of the words “to dictate” is contradictory to the spirit of the democratic process. Voters decide, they do not dictate. This word choice is a poor way to accurately determine attitudes – it is hard for someone who believes in the democratic process to accept that it would be appropriate for any group of people to ‘dictate’ the obligations of others.
c) Voting and citizenship are about many more issues than taxation.
One could thus strongly agree with this statement and still be in favor of emigrant voting rights. Affirmative respondents could mean, for example:
- Non-taxpayers should have no vote.
- All taxpayers should get the vote.
- Taxation decisions should not be made by non-tax-paying dictators
- Net beneficiaries of taxation should not have the authority to levy tax on taxpayers, including emigrants.
9. Emigrants should be allowed to vote in the elections for the office of the President.
This question seems appropriately neutral.
10. The votes of emigrant citizens should be taken into consideration but not outweigh those of resident Irish citizens.
The meaning of this is unclear. How would votes “be taken into consideration”? What does “outweigh” mean in this sense? Does it mean to “outnumber”? (As the DFA estimates there are roughly 3,000,000 Irish passport-holding-citizens abroad, as compared to 4.5 million resident in the republic, and international experience would predict a smaller turnout among emigrant voters, it would be hard to conceive of a situation where non-resident citizen voters would outnumber those of resident Irish citizens.) Is there some other way in which non-resident votes could outweigh the votes of residents?
Those disagreeing with it may mean:
- the votes of emigrant citizens should not be taken into consideration, or
- the outweighing of resident Irish citizens should not be a factor
11. Many emigrants have an unrealistic or distorted picture of Ireland
Who is the arbiter for determining realistic, undistorted pictures of Ireland? Would, for example, a single parent living in the midlands earning the average industrial wage, a Dublin bank executive earning 250,000 a year, and an unemployed young person in Donegal all have the same image of Ireland? Should anyone’s right to vote be granted only if they are in accord with a common image of Ireland that can be agreed by all (or the majority) of its resident citizens?
Additionally, what is to be gleaned from the question of whether emigrant citizens feel that many others have a distorted picture of Ireland? This could, for example, be indicative of confidence (or overconfidence) in one’s own ability to perceive Ireland with greater clarity than others. Or an emigrant who feels angry and disaffected may feel that others maintain too positive a view of Ireland, while an emigrant who is naturally optimistic may feel that others are unnecessarily pessimistic. It could also be indicative of a generation gap, whereby a young person with little experience of older generations of emigrants may be under the impression that older emigrants’ views must be distorted and inaccurate.
This question is particularly problematic because it appears to feed into a commonly expressed, stereotypical view of Irish emigrants. The response is as likely to reveal the extent to which respondents are influenced by this stereotype, as whether emigrants actually have “an unrealistic or distorted picture of Ireland”.
12. Emigrants should not be allowed to vote on basic principles of the state as set out in the Constitution, i.e. the right should be extended to referendums on the Constitution.
The original version of this question question contained a typo – the word “not” appears to be extraneous in the first clause (or is missing from the second).
13. As a resident of ___ I feel my primary loyalty is to that country.
The question of primary loyalty regarding emigrant voting rights is not a clear-cut one. Like many other countries, Ireland allows dual citizenship. It does not, therefore, require that emigrants choose between loyalty to their home and their host countries, and, in fact, the loyalty of the Irish abroad is a feature commonly praised by politicians in describing the relationship between Ireland and its overseas citizens.
Additionally, even those emigrants who do feel a ‘primary loyalty’ to their new countries will still be affected by Irish laws: for example, an Australian-based emigrant who owns a home in Ireland will still need to pay his or her household tax, even if he or she declares a primary loyalty to Australia. The reverse is also true: maintaining one’s primary loyalty to Ireland will not protect an emigrant from, for example, being subject to the habitual residence condition if he or she wants to return home.
The concept of ‘primary loyalty’ is one, therefore, that does not reflect actual obligation, on the part of either the emigrant or the nation: the transfer of one’s loyalty will not grant an emigrant voting rights in another country – unless it is also accompanied by taking up citizenship, a process which in most cases will take several years. Even then, taking up a second citizenship will not absolve an emigrant of any responsibilities in Ireland. Meanwhile, Ireland offers no reward to any emigrant who would refuse to adopt dual citizenship and retain Ireland as one’s sole citizenship.
14. I value my membership of an Irish community where I live.
This is a useful question for a survey on Irish emigrant attitudes generally, but what does it say about voting?
Those who disagree may be saying:
- they do not feel that they have membership of an Irish community where they live
- that they regard their membership in an Irish community as being of little value
- there is no Irish community where they live
It is not evident what agreeing or disagreeing with this statement reveals about whether one might support or oppose the right to vote.
I have written previously about my first submission to the Constitutional Convention, which back in May was looking at the issue of electoral reform. This weekend the Convention will be looking at voting rights for emigrants in Presidential Elections. I have since made two additional submissions, which I’m posting up here for reference as well.
Here is one of my new submissions, prompted by the common opposition argument that emigrants should have no say because of the (mistaken) assumption that emigrants pay no taxes and are not affected by Irish policies. (My third submission is on the Constitutional Convention’s survey, which also deals with these assumptions to some extent._
Emigrant voting: Relevant policy issues and taxation
Many argument by opponents of the right to a vote for emigrants revolve around the areas of taxation and public policy. It is often claimed that the right to vote should be limited to taxpayers (assuming that emigrants are not paying tax), and that emigrants are not affected by political decisions made by politicians. Both of these are problematic assumptions.
The “taxation without representation” issue
One common argument against the vote for emigrants is the notion that allowing emigrants the right to vote would be “representation without taxation” – as if “no representation without taxation” were a well-established democratic principle.
It’s not: there is no democracy in the world that requires the payment of taxes in exchange for a vote. The US is the only developed country in the world that taxes its non-resident citizens on income earned abroad – and yet the US is only one of well over 100 countries around the world that allows its overseas citizens to vote. Even for US expats, there’s no actual link between paying taxes and being allowed to vote: the requirement is that American citizens file taxes; foreign-earned income under a limit of nearly $100,00 is exempt from US taxation. So many, if not most, US expats don’t actually owe any taxes to the US – and yet they all have the right to vote.
The confusion, of course, seems to arise from the fact that the “No representation without taxation” sounds like “No taxation without representation” – a genuine rallying cry for democracy arising out of the American Revolution, and an explicit call for greater voting rights. “No representation without taxation” is the opposite – it’s a call to restrict democracy; a demand for a return to the pre-Enlightenment era when only men of property could vote. We don’t demand the exchange of taxation for voting rights in any other context: the penniless are as entitled to vote in Ireland as the wealthy, and we don’t exclude net beneficiaries of taxation (such as recipients of social welfare, or politicians and public servants paid out of the public purse) from voting. Modern democratic thinking requires the consideration of voters as citizens, not as taxpayers.
In fact, Irish emigrants could justifiably adopt the original “No taxation without representation” as their own rallying cry, for an increasing number of them (including every emigrant who owns a home in Ireland) are being taxed in Ireland, without earning any corresponding right to vote.
Policy issues affecting emigrants
Another of the more common arguments against emigrant voting is that emigrants are not affected by policy decisions made at home. This argument reflects a lack of awareness of the very real ways in which emigrants are disadvantaged as citizens by having no political outlets. This lack of awareness of the effects of policy decisions on emigrants, of course, partially results from the fact that there is no accountability to overseas citizens in the political systems of those countries that do not allow emigrants to vote.
With no representatives to speak for them, the interests of overseas citizens remain uncrystallised and unarticulated, and the population of citizens at home has little awareness of and no reason to respond to them. Paradoxically, while opponents of emigrant voting declare that giving emigrants the vote would give overseas citizens the right to make decisions that do not affect them, the effects of political decisions on overseas citizens are almost never discussed.
The policies that affect emigrants are numerous. For those who are planning to return, these include:
- Economic policies – The rates of emigration and return migration tend to correlate with unemployment levels. A well-functioning economy, with relatively low unemployment rates, will be a necessity to enable the large-scale return that many of today’s emigrants are hoping for.
- Social welfare policies – Emigrants have been adversely affected by the way in which the Habitual Residence Condition has been implemented. Despite pre-implementation assurances that returning emigrants would not be adversely affected by the condition, thousands of emigrants have been prevented from obtaining assistance such as job-seekers’ and carers’ allowances.
- Education policies – Emigrants are affected by residency policies that determine pricing for third-level education.
- Spousal immigration legislation – Emigrants are affected by legislation that will affect their ability to return with their spouses or civil partners and families.
Policies which may affect emigrants whether they plan to return or not:
- Taxation – Many emigrants who have left recently are homeowners, and are required to pay several forms of tax on homes they own.
- Emigrant support budget – this budget provides funding for organisations working with Irish communities abroad, particularly the vulnerable and elderly among them.
- Broadcasting policy – this affects whether emigrants have access to national stations from abroad. This is a particular issue for the Irish in the UK, who have been adversely affected by decisions made in recent years regarding both television and radio broadcasting.
- Contributory pension levels – Tens of thousands of overseas citizens are entitled to the contributory pension based on payments they made while working in Ireland. They are affected by adjustments in the level of payment and eligibility requirements.
- Consular protection levels – Overseas citizens will at times require the protection of Ireland in the form of consular services. They may be adversely and disproportionately affected by cutbacks in consular staffing and embassy closure, or otherwise affected by decisions made concerning the level of support given both generally to citizens overseas and in individual cases.
- Descendent and spousal citizenship – changes have been made to limit the right for overseas citizens to pass on citizenship to descendants or gain citizenship through marriage, and those citizens most affected by this decision have had no say.
For all of these issues, there is a real risk for overseas citizens that Irish policy makers will make decisions without considering either the interests of those abroad who will be affected or the potential deleterious effects on the lives of Irish citizens abroad.
Ireland’s Constitutional Convention will be looking at the issue of votes for emigrants this weekend, as it examines the issue of electoral reform. Mary Hickman of the VICA campaign will speak. The public has been invited to make submissions on the Constitution.ie website. There are many people who have written in on the issue of votes for emigrants, and VICA and the Federation of Irish Societies in London have made particularly good ones.
If you haven’t submitted yet, it’s not too late. It doesn’t need to be terribly long – put in a few words and help shape Ireland’s future, and your own.
Here is what I submitted today:
(a) Votes for overseas citizens should be considered as an important part of electoral reform, and especially for Dáil elections. Overseas citizens are affected by decisions made in Ireland, and they need genuine political representation that will enable their interests and concerns to be voiced and addressed.
2. Issues affecting emigrants
(a) Opponents sometimes argue that allowing overseas citizens the right to vote would be giving them power to make laws they won’t be affected by. This argument ignores the fact that emigrants are, in fact, affected by many laws and policies enacted in Ireland, in which they have no say.
(b) Overseas citizens who are hoping to return can be particularly affected by decisions made by legislators regarding any of the following:
- Economic policies affecting their ability to return
- Social welfare policies (like the habitual residence condition that has been reported in the Irish Times to have prevented at least 3,000 returning emigrants from accessing social welfare after they returned home to find work or care for elderly relatives, sometimes resulting in destitution.)
- Policies around education and the cost of university education for the children of returning emigrants.
- Spousal immigration laws, which could determine whether an emigrant has the right to return home to live with his or her partner
(c) Decisions that affect citizens while they live abroad, whether or not they plan to return, include those made in areas such as:
- Taxation: Many emigrants are required to pay tax on property they own at home. “Taxation without representation” is a reality.
- Pensions: Many emigrants have worked in Ireland and are entitled to a contributory pension; they will thus be affected by any changes in pension levels.
- Levels of consular staffing and protection, which can affect the safety of citizens during times of crisis
- Levels of emigrant support, which provides for on-the-ground assistance in local Irish communities abroad, often to the most vulnerable of emigrants.
- Broadcasting policy, which regulates the ability of Irish communities in the UK and elsewhere to access Irish radio and television broadcasts as well as access to RTE onine services
- Diaspora engagement policies, including the development of cultural, heritage and business initiatives; network development, return policies, foreign direct investment initiatives, and more.
- Citizenship, which can affect the citizenship rights of spouses and descendents.
(d) Many of these policies have a strong impact on the lives of the Irish abroad, yet the effects of these policies on emigrants and overseas citizens are barely on the radar for Irish policy-makers and voters.
(e) There is thus a real need for meaningful representation of the perspectives of overseas citizens in the government.
3. The problem of balance
(a) Some object to the notion of votes for emigrants based on the idea that the Irish abroad could wield disproportionate power in their home constituencies. This is a legitimate concern, but the solution is not to ban all emigrant and overseas citizens’ voices, but rather to come up with a compromise solution that allows for a more balanced representation of all citizens’ perspectives.
(b) Regional constituencies for emigrants, such as exist in France and Italy, should be explored as the simplest solution for allowing the clearest and most balanced representation of emigrant interests.
4. The problem of taxation
(a) Some people question whether it is fair for overseas citizens to vote when they do not pay taxes. It is often forgotten that the young emigrants of this generation, in particular, who have left Ireland in order to be able to pay their mortgages, will have to pay taxes on those properties. Similarly, older emigrants, many of whom are on limited incomes, may have inherited family properties which are also taxed.
(b) A problem arises when people treat the saying “no representation without taxation” as if it is a well-established democratic principle. It is not. The US is the only developed country in the world that taxes its non-resident citizens on income earned abroad – and yet the US is only one of well over 100 countries around the world that allows its expats to vote. Even in the US, there’s no actual connection between paying taxes and being allowed to vote: the requirement is that non-residents file taxes, but don’t owe them on income under about $90,000. So relatively few US expats actually owe any taxes to the US – yet all US citizens are entitled to vote.
(c) The confusion arises from the fact that the “No representation without taxation” sounds like “No taxation without representation” – a genuine rallying cry for democracy arising out of the American Revolution. “No representation without taxation” is the opposite – it’s a call to restrict democracy; a demand for a return to pre-Enlightenment era when only men of property could vote. We don’t demand the exchange of taxation for voting rights in any other context: the penniless are as entitled to vote as the wealthy, and we don’t exclude net beneficiaries of taxation from voting.
5. The distinction between “citizens” and “the diaspora”
(a) In the public debate over emigrant voting, there seems to be some confusion about whether the vote should be for emigrants, the 3 million citizens living around the world, or for the wider diaspora estimated at 70 million. Yet few, if any, advocates of emigrant voting rights are calling for the diaspora to be allowed to vote.
(b) The Constitution currently, it could be argued, supports votes for all citizens, but not to the wider diaspora. Article 2 makes a clear distinction between them:
It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish Nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.
(c) The Irish Nation, thus, is specifically meant to be comprised of everyone who has Irish citizenship. The Constitution states that there is a distinction between citizens, no matter where they live, (who are entitled to be part of the Irish Nation), and the wider diaspora (“the people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”). The worldwide population of citizens have a claim on the Irish Nation, but the non-citizens of the diaspora have merely a ‘special affinity’ that is to be cherished but which offers no such claim.
(d) Article 1 sets out the rights of the Irish nation:
The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions.
(e) This begs the question: If the self-determination right of the nation is “inalienable, indefeasible and sovereign”, how is it just or appropriate that a significant part of the Irish nation is deprived of that right?
I’ve been quiet of late, not because of any lack of things to talk about in the diaspora realm, but because I’ve been busy with some other things, mostly having to do with my father – I minded him for about six months before he died this winter, and since then I’ve been dealing with all the things involved with tying up the affairs of a well-lived eighty-year life.
I think my dad deserves a mention on this site. The experiences of him and my mother, both emigrants from the 1950s-era outflow, were the inspiration for my initial interest in emigration. They always remained as proud of being Irish people as they were of being American citizens, switching their passports to blue and raising their children in suburban New York but always calling Ireland “home”. They – like so many others of their generation – maintained their loyalty to Ireland throughout their whole lives. If I’m honest, I’ve sometimes questioned whether this loyalty has always been fully deserved, and it’s probably this question more than any other that has inspired my work on this site. But that’s for another day.
I was really moved by what one of my friends wrote to me after my dad’s death: “Your Dad was part of the best generation to represent us in the States – they repaid their hosts by working hard, raising families and living by good values. You can be very proud of him.” And I am.
I’ll just repost his obituary here:
Columbus (Colm) Bowden died in New City, New York on Jan. 19, 2013, a week before his 81st birthday. Colm was born in Balleen, Freshford, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland on Jan. 27, 1932. He came to New York in 1958, after a few years working in England for the Ford auto company. He married Teresa Philbin from Castlebar, Co. Mayo, in 1964, moving to New City to raise their family in 1968. Colm spent most of his working life as a New York City bus driver. After retiring from MABSTOA in 1987, he worked for the Town of Clarkstown for ten years.
Colm was much loved by his daughters, grandchildren and many friends and family. He will be remembered for his kind spirit, loyal friendship, generous heart and gregarious laughter. An enthusiastic card-player, he enjoyed frequent games of 25 at the Irish Center in Blauvelt, where he also spent numerous happy Sunday mornings cheering for the Kilkenny hurling team. He maintained strong ties to his native country, visiting relatives and old neighbors often; he phoned his sister Lena every week until the end of his life. Colm was very proud to have been named the Kilkennyman of the Year in 1985 by New York’s Kilkenny Association. An avid reader, he always kept up with the news from home, often with clippings sent by his late sister Kit, and the daily papers. A faithful Catholic, he was also a lifelong Pioneer after taking ‘the pledge’ at 18. After his retirement, he joined the Clarkstown Senior Citizens’ Club, where he made many new friends.
Colm loved travelling. Happiest behind the wheel, he drove to explore America and visit friends in such far away places as Montana, Florida and Canada’s Prince Edward Island. He celebrated his 70th birthday with a train trip across the country to San Francisco and his 75th birthday with a journey that fulfilled his lifelong dream of visiting New Zealand and Australia.
Colm is survived by two sisters in Ireland, Lena Downey and Lil Cahill; his daughters, Eileen Feeley of Alexandria, Virginia and Noreen Bowden of New City; and his two grandchildren, James Colm Feeley and Katherine Teresa Feeley. He will also be missed by his many nieces and nephews in Ireland and America. He was predeceased by his sisters, Margaret, May, and Kit (Sister Ethna), and his brother, John. His beloved wife, Teresa, died in 1986.
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