Expatriate Voting: National and Municipal

Rob Vineberg and I did a further refinement of our arguments against unlimited voting rights for Canadian expatriates in the Vancouver Sun:

With the Supreme Court of Canada hearing the challenge to the current five-year limit on expatriate voting rights, advocates for expansion continue to date their case.

One common feature to such advocacy: a reliance on anecdotes and assertions, completely bereft of any serious effort to assess available data on the strength of connection to Canada.

Common arguments emphasize connections to Canada, a recent example being that of Frédéric Mégret of McGill University. Long-term expatriates “may decide to come back” but is this for family reasons or to access Canadian medicare? They “are, in fact, affected by the laws and policies of Canada” but this is largely limited given that they don’t access or are affected by government services and policies that apply to residents. “Many expatriates, even though they do not reside in Canada, do a considerable amount for Canada, directly or indirectly” but is silent that equally “many” do not. And in a theoretical sense, citizenship can be defined by “how committed one is to its ideals, how ready to give back and to invest in its political life?,” in a practical sense governments can only use crude proxy measures to assess the degree of connection to Canada.

So what do these proxy measures tell us? If we take the Asia Pacific Foundation’s estimate of the number of expatriates, and adjust by voting age and citizenship, we arrive at a baseline of just under two million. Looking at 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 112,000 in 2015 (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 (about 16,000 in the 2015 election) although this number may be depressed by the difficulty in meeting current registration requirements. These more formal indicators, albeit imperfect, suggest a smaller number of connected expatriates than some of the arguments would suggest.

An argument for unlimited voting rights means that 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 of living in Canada, being subject to Canadian laws, accessing Canadian public services or 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.

Moreover, first generation Canadians born abroad, entitled to citizenship, would similarly be able to vote, irrespective of whether they had ever set foot in Canada.

The government has understandably chosen to await the Supreme Court decision on whether the current five-year limit is constitutional. However, it signalled its intent in Bill C-33, tabled more than a year ago, to support unlimited voting rights for expatriates. This is more generous than the practices of the UK, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, all of which impose significant conditions in order to qualify to vote abroad. While France, Italy and Portugal all allow expatriates to vote, they have established overseas constituencies in their legislatures. This prevents the will of the domestic electorate being changed by expatriate voting. In our view, residency matters.

While one can argue for a minimum of three years (as required to obtain citizenship), five years as in the current electoral rules, or some other number, citizenship is not just a theoretical construct of connection and commitment: it needs to include some measure of physical presence. The longer one has lived in Canada, the longer one should have the right to vote if living abroad. For example, if one has lived in Canada for 25 years or more, the right to vote abroad could be permanent while shorter periods of residence in Canada could entitle people to a shorter period of voting as an expatriate.

However the Supreme Court may rule on expatriate voting, the government will have to decide whether it continues to favour unlimited voting rights for expatriates or take a more measured approach to providing expanded voting rights for expatriates without the unintended consequence of diminishing the value the votes cast by Canadians resident in Canada.

Source: Andrew Griffith and Robert Vineberg: What should the voting rights of Canadian expatriates be? 

The related but distinct issue of municipal voting rights for Permanent Residents was subject to this cautionary editorial in the Vancouver Sun. In my opinion, enthusiasm for municipal voting rights is misplaced given that Canadian citizenship, which provides the full panoply of national, provincial and municipal voting rights, is to be preferred than partial rights.

Moreover, the arguments in favour of municipal voting rights are more valid in European countries with long residency period requirements compared to Canada’s three years:

About 250 years ago, colonists in New England rebelled against the Stamp Tax that Britain had imposed to recover the cost of defending the colonies during the Seven Years War. Their complaint was that the tax was illegal because they had no say in the matter. “No taxation without representation” not only became a popular bumper sticker, but ultimately led to the American Revolution.

Perhaps it was in the spirit of that principle that Vancouver city council this week unanimously passed a motion to ask the province to “make the necessary changes” to allow permanent residents to vote at the local level.

Vancouver has an estimated 60,000 permanent residents (based on 2011 statistics) — those who have gone through the immigration process but are not Canadian citizens. Permanent residents must live in Canada for two out five years to maintain their status. Although they work, own homes, pay taxes and are entitled to social benefits, including health care coverage and protection under Canadian law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they do not have the right to vote. The authors of that restriction had their reasons.

Coun. Andrea Reimer said extending the right to vote to permanent residents would advance Vancouver’s ability “to be a welcoming and inclusive city.” Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson added that “a local government … keen to do more engagement in our democracy is a good thing overall.” A few other municipalities, including Halifax and Toronto, have also asked their provincial governments to change the rules.

The argument that people who pay taxes should have the right to determine who is managing the money and implementing policies that affect them is compelling. Besides paying income, property and sales taxes, permanent residents are part of their communities, send their children to nearby schools, shop in local stores and put their garbage out for collection like everyone else. But if permanent residents are granted the right to vote in civic elections, why wouldn’t the same principles apply to federal and provincial elections? And if they do, what then is the value of citizenship? Is it nothing more than a passport and a guarantee against deportation?

Besides, the notion that permanent residents would rush out to exercise their newly acquired right to vote in civic elections might be wishful thinking. It seems more likely their voting patterns would mirror those of the population at large. Turnout for the last civic election in 2014 was 44 per cent, up from 34 per cent in the 2011 election. Engagement is not top of mind for a majority of Vancouver’s citizens.

Advocating for the vote for permanent residents is a feel-good initiative for city council, but the provincial government must consider the serious implications of such a move. Although many permanent residents have lived in Canada for a long time and know the ropes, many are newcomers, some from countries where social norms are quite different from Canada’s, particularly on matters of gender equality and free speech. Some may not appreciate the sanctity of the secret ballot or freedom from duress in casting a vote.

The provincial government should respond to the city’s request cautiously. Its deliberations will require all-party committee work and extensive debate, which probably cannot be completed on time to take effect before the October 20 civic election. Fortunately, Minister Robinson has not committed to having legislation in place before then. She should not rush the changes council has requested.

Source: Editorial: Take time to consider extending right to vote 

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: