Canadian expats shouldn’t have unlimited voting rights – Bill C-33 critique

Rob Vineberg, former regional director general for the Prairies and the North at CIC (now IRCC) and I penned this op-ed against the proposed indefinite extension of expat voting rights in C-33 (we will be submitting a brief once the Bill goes to Committee).
This has generating the most comments of any of my articles, virtually all from Canadian expats who disagree with us on Twitter. Useful input as we finalize our brief to the Commons committee that will study the Bill (PROC).
As behind a paywall, full text below:

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould is in charge of shepherding Bill C-33, currently at second reading, through the House.  The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright


PUBLISHED : Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017 12:00 AM

In responding to the Supreme Court challenge of the five-year limit of voting rights, the government has proposed in Bill C-33 to extend voting rights indefinitely to Canadians living abroad, no matter how short their residence in Canada.

This is more generous than the standard comparator countries of Australia and New Zealand, which require a formal renewable declaration or visits (six and three years respectively), the United Kingdom, which has a 15-year limit, and the United States, which requires filing of taxes.

In essence, any citizen who left Canada as a baby or small child would have unlimited voting rights. As such, the proposal disconnects voting from any experience living in Canada, being subject to Canadian laws, accessing Canadian public services, as well as paying Canadian taxes, and thus devalues the votes of Canadians who do reside in Canada and are subject to these day-to-day realities of Canadian life.

To date, the government has not articulated why it chose this unlimited approach, apart from resorting to the phrase “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” without acknowledging that this argument was made in the limited context of revocation of citizenship in cases of terrorism, and the need to treat Canadian-born and naturalized Canadians equally before the law.

Advocates of expanding voting rights over the current five years have argued that Canadians living abroad contribute to Canada and the world, and many retain an active connection with Canada, whether it is business, social, cultural, political, or academic. These Canadians’ global connections should be valued as an asset. The internet and social media make it easier for Canadians to remain in touch with Canada and Canadian issues. Non-resident Canadians pay income tax on their Canadian income and property tax on any property they may own in Canada. Their vote is unlikely to affect the overall electoral results.

This is argued using a general estimate of over one million expatriates, without any assessment of the degree of connection that expatriates have with Canada. However, using government data, we know that the number of expatriates holding valid Canadian passports is approximately 630,000 adult Canadians who have lived abroad for five years or more. We also know that the number of non-resident Canadian tax returns, a deeper measure of connection, was about 140,000 in 2013 (the last year for which information is available). And while hard to assess the potential interest of long-term Canadian expatriates in voting, the data for those who qualify under the current rules suggest there is not widespread demand.

While one of us (Griffith) believes in a more restrictive approach and one us (Vineberg) believes in a more flexible approach, we recognize the government is committed to expand voting rights. We see three main options:

  1. Double the current limit to 10 years: This would align with two parliaments as well as passport validity. While it would not address the concerns of all expatriates, it would expand voting rights.
  2. Provide unlimited voting rights to expatriates who have lived 25 years or more in Canada: This recognizes the long-term connection and experience with Canadian life as well as the concerns of expatriate seniors who have contributed to the Canada Pension Plan and receive CPP and Old Age Security benefits.
  3. Modify the proposed approach with a minimum residency requirement of three years: This ensures a minimal connection to Canada, aligned to citizenship requirements, with only a valid Canadian passport being acceptable evidence of citizenship. However, this modified version of the provision in Bill C-33 does not fundamentally change our objection to again essentially unlimited voting rights.

In the latter options, this should be combined with the creation of two overseas constituencies to recognize that expatriate interests are different from resident Canadians and address any concerns that the expatriate vote could influence the results in particular ridings.

Notwithstanding what approach is chosen, administrative simplicity based on the current Elections Canada process should be maintained. Elections Canada should also be required to conduct an evaluation of the impact of any such change following the next election.

The government does not appear to have thought through the implications and options regarding expanding voting rights and appears to have listened only to advocates for expansion rather than a broader range of Canadians. We favour a combination of the first two options and hope that parliamentary review of Bill C-33 will result in changes that respect a balance between expanded expatriate voting rights and the interests of resident Canadians.

Source: Canadian expats shouldn’t have unlimited voting rights – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

6 Responses to Canadian expats shouldn’t have unlimited voting rights – Bill C-33 critique

  1. Jamie Duong says:

    So much false information in this post. Voting rights in the USA are not provided in exchange for filing taxes. They are two separate issues and one has no impact on the other.

    Australia and New Zealand do have limits (6 and 3 years as you mention) but they are indefinitely renewable, which means that for those who wish to vote, there is no limit.

    It’s so absurd that in 2017, when information travels at the speed of light, and voter turnout continues to decline, there are those among us who would work to block the voting rights of fellow Canadians.

  2. Andrew says:

    The fact that US citizens are expected to pay income tax whether they live in the US abroad makes voting rights without restriction more political acceptable (although residency-based taxation far preferable). Citizenship and taxation are connected so while you are technically correct that voting rights are separate there is nevertheless a connection.

    With respect to Australia and NZ, I would have been quite happy had C-33 contained similar or comparable provisions. I have no issue with renewability as long as it requires some action by the citizen; it just shouldn’t be indefinite without any even small effort.

    But our op-ed was written in the context of the government’s overly generous approach (know you disagree) and we tried to provide some options to inform the committee discussion.

    This being said, your comments and the many on twitter, are helpful as we finalize our brief so thank you.

    Out of curiosity, would you have been satisfied with some variant of the Australian or NZ approach?

  3. Jamie Duong says:

    It wasn’t until the Harper administration decided that visiting Canada would no longer reset the clock that this ever became an issue. The law was passed in 1993 and it wasn’t until the 2011 elections that thousands of Canadians who tried to register to vote were informed they were no longer eligible.

    Personally, I just don’t see the “threat” that you identify as an actual concern. Given that in 1993 they expected 200,000 Canadians to vote from overseas and that number has NEVER surpassed 20,000, I think we have a lot of room for more Canadians to vote.

    I view all votes by Canadian citizens as equal exercises of Canadian democracy. Throughout Canada’s history we have expanded the franchise to more and more Canadian citizens (non-property owning men, Asians, Blacks, women, Indigenous Peoples, judges, prisoners) and I would argue that our democracy is better and stronger for it. I reject the notion that voting rights are a zero sum game and white male property owners have benefited from each subsequent expansion of the franchise has improved the system that they take part in. An expansion to Canadians living abroad would likewise improve our democracy.

  4. Andrew says:

    Thanks – much more helpful than twitter convos!

    Some questions on the numbers you cite.

    Do you have any more specific data on the number who tried to register and who were refused?

    Your point on the expectation of 200,000 and the reality of never more than 20,000 is valid (but sometimes planning can err in either direction). But it does suggest that the interest is relatively limited, in itself an interesting observation (and one that I suspected).

    Do you have any comparative data on expat voting registration and participation of other countries? Is there a general pattern here in terms of voting rights vs exercising these rights?

    And what does this apparent low interest mean to our respective arguments? One point which we will address in our brief.

    • Jamie Duong says:

      To be blunt, I think it means further restrictions are unnecessary and punitive to the connected, engaged Canadians whose voices should be heard.

  5. Pingback: Canadians abroad have a right to vote too: Frank and O’Brien | Multicultural Meanderings

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