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 

Why expatriates should be able to vote

Frédéric Mégret, an associate professor of law at McGill University, trots out the usual assertions in making the case for unlimited voting rights for Canadian expatriates, no matter how tenuous or distant the connection. Completely bereft of any data or serious evidence to support his arguments.

Moreover, he appears to favour a citizenship with no connection to residency, no matter how short. Or even no residency in the case of the first generation born abroad (for my previous arguments, see What should expatriates’ voting rights be? – Policy Options):

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the barring of expatriates who have resided away from Canada more than five years from voting in Canadian elections. The Ontario Court of Appeal had earlier found the restrictions democratically justifiable because they preserved the “social contract” between voters and lawmakers. Whether it is the case that the social contract depends on denying voting rights to non-resident citizens is highly dubious. More importantly, often overlooked in the debate is the broader issue of how Canada – and other countries – should relate to their diasporas in an age when significant numbers chose to live abroad while retaining deep emotional and political bonds to their country of citizenship.

The argument against long-term expatriate voting often portrays non-residents as essentially free riders, voting on laws that will not affect them. The reality is considerably more complex. First, long-term expatriates may decide to come back and so arguably continue to have a vested interest in their country of citizenship. To the extent that they do not have voting rights in their country of residency, they are deprived of their only opportunity to exercise political rights. Second, long-term expatriates are, in fact, affected by the laws and policies of Canada, especially to the extent they have international ramifications. They are often the only point of contact that foreigners will have with Canadians. All expatriates share the experience of having been called upon to account, informally at least, for the policies of their home country. They may be targeted as Canadians. Third, many expatriates, even though they do not reside in Canada, do a considerable amount for Canada, directly or indirectly. It goes without saying that Canada is very well represented by its expatriates, many of whom do great honour to our country.

The prioritizing of residency over citizenship, in this context, is problematic in several respects. Although the nation state may be a primarily territorial concept, citizenship is not. Citizenship is measured not by how long one spends on the territory of one’s state, but how committed one is to its ideals, how ready to give back and to invest in its political life. The idea that long-term expatriates are distant and disconnected citizens is belied by their voting record and the intensity by which some of them have, precisely, been willing to protest, including before the courts, against the denial of their rights, invoking their “deep and abiding” connection to Canada. Moreover, citizenship is what you make of it: Treating the diaspora as if it had no connection to Canada is surely to contribute to severing that link. One is also a citizen because one is provided with meaningful opportunities to exercise one’s rights as such. Finally, one should be wary of attempts at fragmenting citizenship, part of a worrying trend that includes fighting less hard for dual citizens abroad or threatening to withdraw citizenship from those convicted of certain offences. Attacks on the indivisibility of citizenship suggest that some Canadian citizens are less citizens than others, and are therefore attacks on the citizenship of all.

The debate deserves to be put in its global context, where it clearly transcends the particulars of any theoretical social contract. How to deal with expatriate populations has become a defining issue of our globalized age, whether it comes to voting rights or how aggressively countries protect their nationals abroad when they are, for example, threatened or prosecuted. Canada has not always made the right choices. Today, however, many countries positively court their diasporas, and for good reason, not only as a source of remittance, but as a source of soft power, and as part of a deep commitment to the free flow of people and ideas. Many countries not only allow, but positively encourage, their diasporas to vote back at home. Although the Harper government once objected to this, Canada is actually part of a variety of French, Italian or Tunisian electoral constituencies.

It may not come as a surprise that Canada, a country that traditionally conceived itself as a place of immigration rather than emigration, has given relatively less thought to this question than other countries. The absence of specific constitutional arrangements for the representation of its diaspora, for example, sets it apart from others that have thought more creatively about this issue. In an age where people are increasingly on the move, making residency a condition of citizenship may not only be unfair to those affected; it may fail to do justice to Canada’s diversity.

via Why expatriates should be able to vote – The Globe and Mail