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What is the theory behind the emigrant vote?

1 Oct

What are the democratic arguments for allowing expats to vote? I wrote a paper recently reflecting on issues such as fairness, the meaning of citizenship, representative democracy, and the development of the faculties. I wrote up this paper while studying for an MPA at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, for a class I was taking with the rather legendary Jane Mansbridge.

Here it is: Emigrant Voting Rights: A Normative Perspective.

Does Irish confusion over EU voting rights contribute to our lack of emigrant vote?

17 Feb

One of the arguments often put forward in Ireland against emigrant voting is that Irish expats “should vote where they live”. This argument, of course, ignores the fact that many emigrants simply don’t have the choice to do that.

I’ve come across a statistic that helps to explain why this argument comes up repeatedly: A Eurobarometer survey has found that most Irish people are misinformed about voting rights in the EU, and believe that EU nationals have more rights than they do when they move to another EU state. About 74% of them, in fact, believe that non-Irish EU citizens residing in Ireland can vote in Irish national elections.

Of course, they can’t – EU nationals living in another member state can only vote in local and European elections. And with only 26% of Irish-based respondents answering correctly, they were far less likely to know this than nationals of other European nations – only the citizens of Malta were less likely to answer the question correctly. In contrast, 58% of those in Denmark and 57% of those in Austria, and 55% of the French were aware that EU citizens don’t have the right to vote or stand as a candidate in national elections in their EU host countries.

More encouraging, however, is the fact that Irish people are most likely to state that EU citizens living in another member state should have the right to vote and stand as a candidate in national elections. 68% of Irish people believed this, while Spaniards were next most likely to agree, with 62%. Only 32% of those in Denmark answered the same.

The survey also found that when it comes to European MEP elections, 45% of Irish nationals would prefer to vote for a candidate in their Member State of residence, while 48% would prefer to vote in their Member State of origin. Irish nationals living outside of Ireland, however, have no option to vote for MEP candidates in Ireland. allows symbolic vote

16 Feb is now allowing Irish expats to cast a symbolic ballot in this year’s general election in Ireland. The site is aimed at the three million Irish passport holders living abroad.

The site opened on Monday and will remain open until 12:00 GMT on Tuesday 22. Only those living outside of Ireland will be able to cast a ballot.

The site’s organisers, who are based in Canada, have done a brilliant job at calling attention to the disenfranchisement of our emigrants. They have had much positive press coverage – highlighting the fact that emigrant voting is viewed as an increasingly normal part of expat life around the world.

A sampling of the press coverage:

Cast your vote at


Green Party’s Ciaran Cuffe: Emigrants should retain vote for five years

5 Feb

Green candidate Ciaran Cuffe has expressed support for granting voting rights for recent emigrants. A statement on the Politics Press Release site says:

Green Party TD for Dun Laoghaire Ciaran Cuffe  today called for all Irish citizens who have emigrated to retain the right to vote in national and local elections and in referenda for up to five years.

Deputy Cuffe said: “Many people leaving Ireland today do not intend it to be a long-term or permanent move. For some people emigration is necessary to find employment during the economic downturn. For others it is a lifestyle choice. However, many share a common desire to return home again once economic and employment conditions improve. I believe that all Irish citizens who have contributed so much to the State and wish to have a genuine stake in its future political direction of the country should not automatically lose to their right to vote once they leave the country.

“Under Irish law if you are living abroad you cannot be entered into the register of electors with some exceptions for Irish diplomats, members of the defence and police forces who can apply for a postal vote. More than 110 countries allow passport holders who live abroad the right to vote, however Ireland is not one of them.”

Deputy Cuffe said: “Ireland should look at French, Dutch and British examples of where the diaspora living overseas are afforded the right to vote electronically, or by mail or at a local embassy or consulate. If it can be done effectively in other countries we can do it here.”

The Green Party and Fianna Fail had promised to make recommendations on the feasibility of voting rights for emigrants in their 2009 programme for government. Those recommendations, which were due in October 2010, were never delivered.

Irish Times: Economist warns against disenfranchisement

29 Jan

I was surprised to see a reference to emigrant voting rights in an article by former Central Bank chief economist Michael Cleary in today’s Irish Times. Cleary, who is also on the executive board of the IMF, gave an analysis of factors leading to outward migration from Ireland. He noted that the problem of emigration in Ireland seems intractable:

In short, it now seems as if the boom years were an anomaly and that high unemployment and emigration are never far from the surface here, especially when demand is constrained by recession and deflationary policies. Structural factors also play a part – though perhaps not the dominant one.

The concept of “hysteresis” may be relevant. Normally applied to unemployment, it suggests the problem feeds on itself. That is why, in inner cities, if parents are unemployed there is a strong probability that their children will also be unemployed. It is difficult to break the cycle. The same may be true of emigration. Once it begins or resumes, it becomes easier for others to follow. This may be because existing emigrants urge friends and relatives to do the same. If this is true then even if cyclical and structural problems are largely corrected, unemployment and emigration may continue for quite a long time. There is an urgent need to examine in detail the motivations of emigrants. They should not be ignored or disenfranchised as they were in the past.

That last sentence is particularly important, highlighting as it does the way we’re ignoring our emigrants by silencing them from our political system. Why should emigrants not have a vote?

29 Jan has a lively debate going on over whether only previously resident emigrants should have a vote. It’s worth a trawl.


Irish Times columnist: votes for emigrants “an idea no one wants to crush”

29 Jan

Journalist Sarah Carey has advanced a particularly poor argument against emigrant voting rights in the Irish Times.

She sets up a straw man of worthy sentimentality as the reason behind the call for emigrant voting rights, then claims this:

I like too the guiding principle of “no taxation without representation”. It’s not reasonable that people who don’t pay taxes to the State should be allowed to have a say in how those taxes are collected and distributed. Those living in Ireland, no matter how poor, will pay tax, directly or indirectly.

One suspects she actually meant she believes in the “guiding principle” of “no representation without taxation” but was corrected in the editing process. Because she clearly doesn’t believe in the principle of “no taxation without representation”  – or she’d be advocating for a vote for emigrants on the basis that many of them are already paying taxes.

Carey adopts a remarkably snarky tone and seems to feel that any concern for our overseas citizens belongs to the realm of a 19th century novel. She uses words like “lament” and “tragic eloquence”, while noting that “votes for emigrants” is “an idea no one wants to crush because it sounds so worthy. Instead we politely indulge its advocates but do nothing about it.”

It’s not about tragic eloquence, of course, it’s about the rights of transnational citizens, and developing a relationship with our diaspora that is worthy of the 21st century. The traditional model, where we send off our young and wait for the remittances to roll in, isn’t going to work for much longer. Our well-educated and well-connected expats expect to keep their vote when they leave, and there have been many reports of European work colleagues expressing shock at realising there is no postal vote option for our overseas citizens. All this while our government actively seeks to network (or “harness” as the favoured phrase has it) our diaspora in order to benefit the Irish economy.

Anyway, there are pages of comments following her article, with the majority of them chiming in disagreement. There is actually so much wrong with this article and Carey’s reasoning that it would take far more time than it’s worth to deconstruct it. I’ve contributed on the comments, and I’ve also sent this letter off to the Times:


Regarding Sarah Carey’s article on emigrant voting rights (27 Jan), the notion that overseas citizens are unaffected by decisions at home is completely out of touch with the realities of transnational citizenship in the 21st century. Irish citizens abroad are potentially affected by decisions about social welfare, pensions, foreign policy, civil partnership and spousal immigration, taxation, broadcasting and consular protection. Your recent report on the thousands of returning emigrants denied benefits under the Habitual Residence Condition demonstrated that decisions made by Irish lawmakers can have devastating consequences on emigrants’ lives.

As for Ms Carey’s suggestion that emigrants should be taxed, this is a totally separate issue to voting – no developed nation in the world links the two the way she would suggest. In fact, the US is the only developed country in the world that taxes its expats on foreign-earned income – and I suspect that if Ireland were to do so we’d find we get less money than the value of what we’re currently getting from global Irish business networking, FDI, venture capital assistance, expats opening new markets, tourism, and philanthropic giving. Right now, we’ve got a highly loyal diaspora that’s worth a lot of cash to us. Adding a layer of paperwork and an attitude of even greater entitlement to our diaspora relations probably won’t serve any of us well.


Noreen Bowden