Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA) Submission to the Constitutional Convention
VICA is a campaign of members of London’s Irish communities calling for the right of Irish citizens living outside the island of Ireland to vote in general elections in the Republic of Ireland. VICA wants the rights enjoyed by citizens of at least 115 countries throughout the world – all of whom have voting rights in national elections when living abroad – to be extended to Irish citizens. This campaign is supported by many Irish citizens across the globe, including the USA, Australia and Ireland.
Constitutional Convention Item (iii) Review of the Dáil electoral system
VICA’s position: The right to vote in elections for the Dáil be granted to all Irish citizens abroad who are first generation (that is, who emigrated from Ireland) with no time limit. This to be managed through a system of reserved constituencies in order not to swamp the votes of resident citizens.
VICA is forthright in the belief that Ireland’s fortunes rely on a strong relationship with all its citizens. Article 2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland), which became part of the Constitution on 2 December 1999 as a result of the Good Friday Agreement states:
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.
VICA is campaigning on behalf of all Irish citizens who are now living abroad who we believe should be entitled to vote in elections and referenda in the Republic of Ireland. By ‘abroad’ we mean outside the island of Ireland. Whether citizens in Northern Ireland should have the right to vote for the Irish Presidency and Dáil Éireann is beyond the scope of VICA.
Rationale: Why Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad should be granted urgently?
The current young generation in Ireland had every reason to believe they were growing up in a country where emigration was an option not a necessity. Such is not the case. For many emigration has again become involuntary, and even for those for whom the move abroad is originally voluntary the lack of opportunities in Ireland often transforms their situation in to one of involuntary non-return.
Given the current state of the economy, in the next few years there are likely to be still further people emigrating. These repetitive cycles of emigration amount to a hemorrhaging of talent, a waste of educational investment, great sadness and difficulties due to split families and periods of uncertainty and dislocation for the majority of emigrants. Their future rights are at stake as well.
The immediate disenfranchisement of Irish citizens as soon as they leave the country is a source of anger and frustration. Irish citizens who have had to leave have no say about the direction the country should take in the 21st century. At this time of national economic crisis for Ireland there have been many calls for changes in the political system and culture. One indication that such changes were underway would be if Ireland were to follow the example of at least 115 other countries around the world and extend the franchise to include citizens living abroad. Demanding the vote for citizens abroad is not therefore an extraordinary claim and in Ireland already has a limited precedent in the elections for Senators representing NUI and Trinity in the Seanad.
Most Irish emigrants maintain strong ties with Ireland through their connections with family and friends and by using a variety of communications media to stay in touch with news from Ireland. These connections have never been easier to sustain due to the proliferation of social media. Irish citizens abroad also remain connected to Ireland in that they remain subject to some laws and government decisions, like the removal of the franchise They are in other words life long stakeholders in the sense that if born and brought up in Ireland they are ‘biographically subjected’ to the state (Baubock 2009) through their prior formative residence. In addition most emigrants have a ‘project of return’ and whether this is realizable depends to a large measure on the management of the Irish economy. These significant ties and future orientated interests make first generation citizens abroad genuine stakeholders (Honohan 2011). In these ways, therefore, Irish citizens abroad remain stake-holders in Ireland and for many their life circumstances link their individual well being to the common good of the political community that is Ireland.
As Irish emigration accelerates again Irish success in Britain and America is being replicated in Canada and Australia where a new generation of Irish citizens are at the heart of these growing economies. There is a contradiction in the close relationship Ireland has with all these nations. Irish emigrants working and generating wealth in these economies are disenfranchised from their ‘homeland’, while US, Canadian, and British citizens residing in Ireland, along with many newer immigrants to Ireland like Polish citizens, not only have the right to vote ‘back home’, but are encouraged to do so. VICA seeks parity of rights for those who emigrate from Ireland.
What is the relationship of taxation to voting rights for citizens abroad?
VICA’s view: Taxation depends on residency: Voting depends on citizenship.
Exceptionally American citizens pay tax abroad regardless of residency, in every other country, including Ireland, paying tax depends on residency and where your income comes from etc. Non-Irish citizens who pay tax in Ireland are not entitled to vote in Irish general elections and referenda. The exception is British citizens who are able to vote in both Irish elections and British elections. Irish citizens living in Britain can only vote in Britain.
Irish citizens abroad may not pay tax in Ireland but they continue to contribute economically to Ireland in significant ways. They continue to contribute through remittances, through paying down debts they have accrued as a result of the catastrophic collapse of the property market, and by developing businesses that link Ireland with their country of (temporary) settlement. Economic contributions are part of the strong evidence of the continuing significant ties and future orientated interests of first generation citizens abroad that marks them as genuine stakeholders in Irish society.
Why there should be no time limit on the franchise?
VICA’s position: There should not be a limit on the extension of the right to vote to Irish citizens abroad.
A major part of the rationale for extending the franchise to citizens abroad should be their long-term and continuing stake in the society. This frequently includes an intention to return that may only become feasible on retirement. Most countries do not set a time limit; this includes most EU members and the United States. The UK is relatively unusual in only allowing its citizens to vote in elections for 15 years after they move abroad (thirteen other countries of the 115 that allow external voting have a time restriction).
How can this extension of the franchise be implemented?
VICA supports: The idea of reserved constituencies for citizens abroad.
This follows the example of France and Italy. There is an issue about how the vote of Irish citizens abroad would be organized. There are three million Irish passport holders outside Ireland of whom approximately one million were born in Ireland. There are a variety of reasons for forming reserved constituencies for citizens abroad. A major one is when the numbers of citizens abroad form a significant proportion of the electorate relative to the resident population and there are genuine fears of swamping if they all exercised their vote. This fear is often expressed in Ireland’s case.
In France there are 12 world-wide constituencies, for example, French citizens in Ireland are in a constituency that includes the United Kingdom, the Baltic States and Norway and Sweden. In Italy’s case there are four external electorates, these comprise: Europe; South America; North and Central America; and a large electorate combining Australia, Asia, Africa, Oceania and Antarctica. There are 12 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and six in the Senate reserved for citizens abroad, and these are distributed among the four overseas electoral zones in proportion to the number of Italian citizens resident in each. For example, the European electorate, which an Italian resident in Ireland would be included within, has 6 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and two in the Senate. Implementing a similar system would allow the votes of Irish citizens abroad to be simultaneously ring-fenced and have genuine proportional representation in the Dáil for their interests.
The significance of the requirement that citizens abroad register to vote
All countries that extend the franchise to their citizens abroad expect them to register to vote, frequently on an annual basis. This is part of demonstrating an on-going commitment and interest in the State. For example, Italian citizens abroad must register with the appropriate consulate within 90 days of arriving in their destination. This triggers a process whereby they are removed from the Resident Population Registry and become eligible to vote as part of one of the external electorates in parliamentary elections and national referenda.
In countries that allow citizens abroad to vote but do not operate a system of external constituencies, it is usually the case that a citizen has to register with the electoral registration office for the area where the person was last registered to vote. The UK is an example of a country that uses this method. Germany also does not operate a system of external electorates and in order for a German citizen to vote from abroad they must make an application to be entered on the register of voters of their last home municipality in Germany. It is also possible to organize a secure registration system online.
Both the UK and Germany have a relatively small proportion of their possible external electorate registering to vote in elections (13,000 out of a possible 3-5 million and 55,000 out of a possible 3 million respectively). Whereas, for example, in Italy, in 2006, nearly one million votes were cast for the Chamber of Deputies amongst the four external electorates. Although in France the turn out did not exceed 30 per cent in any of the external constituencies, many cited problems with the on-line voting system as the reason why they did not cast a vote. The difference in the number of votes cast may in part be due to voting being viewed as more of an obligation in some countries rather than others. It may, however, also be a consequence of the provision of external constituencies as this produces dedicated representatives and means that external citizens can now vote in their place of residence, for representatives who will represent them as external citizens. and this may galvanize them accordingly.
Possible voting procedures
A majority of countries that facilitate voting for their citizens abroad manage the process with either voting in person (at a local consulate or at specially organized voting stations) or by a postal vote by a set deadline prior to the domestic election. In France in 2012 expatriates could vote by postal ballot or over the Internet, and they could of course vote in person in their local consulate. There were variations in the date by which they had to vote depending on voters’ location and the method by which they cast their ballot. In the UK it is possible for an individual not only to vote by post but also to nominate a proxy to cast their vote in the constituency where the individual who is abroad continues to be registered. Slovakia intends to introduce online voting for its external citizens. There are therefore a variety of well-tried methods for citizens abroad to cast their vote. An important consideration should be the relative ease of the voting procedure in order to facilitate maximum participation, however, verifying the authenticity of voters may involve some difficulties and require some constraints.