Illegal emigrant voting: How #HometoVote could backfire
Campaigners warn about dangers of ineligible voting in abortion referendum
Members of the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign at the International Women’s Day march in 2017. Photograph: John Wells
On May 21st, 2015, the day before Ireland voted to introduce marriage equality, #HometoVote began to trend on Twitter. By 5pm on the day of the referendum, 72,000 tweets using the hashtag had been sent in 24 hours.
A graphic showing the location of the tweets on a world map looked like a constellation of stars moving towards one central point as emigrants made their way home to Ireland from around the globe to cast their ballots.
It was one of the most unexpected and notable elements of that vote.
When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pledged last week to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment this year, the #HometoVote hashtag began to reappear in newsfeeds, along with a newer one, #HomeForHer. Emigrants pledged once again to travel back to Ireland to have their say, this time on the issue of abortion.
It has been initiated by the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, a group established in 2016, now with about 2,000 members. The campaign will be supported by Repeal Global, a network of smaller such groups in 40 cities around the world.
For the past two years, these groups have organised international pro-appeal demonstrations to coincide with the Dublin March For Choice in locations including Vancouver, Brussels, Cambodia and Sydney.
But with voting rights for Irish emigrants restricted to 18 months after leaving, the vast majority of Irish citizens living abroad will not be eligible to vote legally, no matter how passionately they feel about the issue on either the pro-choice or anti-abortion side.
So how many will travel back to cast their ballots? Could it be enough to sway the result? And is there potential for a legal challenge if the result is tight?
Laws governing non-resident Irish citizens’ eligibility to vote are hard to enforce. There are few checks at polling stations, no personalised records of voters’ entry and exit to and from the State, and in effect anybody who receives a polling card at a previous address can turn up to vote.
It effectively allows emigrants who have been abroad for a long period of time to come home and vote illegally.
It is not known how many overseas residents voted in the 2015 referendum, or how many of those #HometoVote tweets were just people talking about others doing it.
The organisers estimate it was “in the thousands”, but they have only social media trends and sold-out flights to go by.
Unlike more than 130 countries worldwide, Ireland has no system for citizens abroad to have a say in either elections or referendums. Under the 1992 Electoral Act, Irish citizens retain their right to vote for just 18 months after moving abroad, as long as they intend to return to Ireland within that timeframe.
There is no postal vote, so those who want to have their say have to travel to Ireland on the day to cast their ballot.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office show 30,800 Irish citizens left the country between April 2016 and April 2017. Based on these numbers, the London-Irish group estimates that more than 40,000 emigrants could be eligible to vote when the proposed referendum is held in May or June this year.
But technically, there is nothing to stop people who have been living overseas for far longer than 18 months from coming back to vote if their names are still on the electoral register.
Responding to questions from The Irish Times, the Department of Housing and Local Government says it is up to local authorities to ensure registers are up to date. As part of this remit, the department says, they call door to door to check – but such checks seem intermittent.
AND WE’RE LIVE! We’re excited to launch https://t.co/5QT0DsCUcs - a global campaign calling on Irish abroad to return #HometoVote in the #8thAmendment referendum. Read more here https://t.co/0rRv4nl8jd or visit https://t.co/5QT0DsCUcs. #repealthe8th pic.twitter.com/Od7uvFI9fL— London-Irish ARC (@LdnIrishARC) February 8, 2018
This journalist knows several people living abroad for between four and 10 years who received polling cards in 2015 and returned to vote in the marriage equality referendum.
London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign spokeswoman Claire McGowran, a 31-year-old from Firhouse in Dublin who has lived in London for five years, says a key part of the campaign this time is informing emigrants about who is eligible to vote under Irish law – and who is not.
“We wanted to make sure everything was above board,” she says. “We only want eligible people to vote. It is important to us that if we get the result we want in May, that there’s nothing that can challenge that.”
A legal challenge is possible, especially if the result is tight, according to Dublin barrister Hugh McDowell, currently co-writing a book on electoral law with Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan.
Any challenger “would need to be able to prove that people who had been abroad for 18 months or more had actually come back and voted. They could do so by reference to posts on social media. They would then have to prove that this was done in such numbers that would have materially affected the result”, he says.
“Unless it is very close, the possibility of a challenge being a success is slim.”
Joey Kavanagh, who started #HometoVote for the marriage equality referendum, urges people to “consider the potential outcomes of voting if they’re not entitled to do so”.
“A frustration for me in the run-up to the [marriage] referendum was the suggestion that our campaign was in some way responsible for policing who travelled home and who didn’t. We tried to provide the best information we could regarding who was eligible to vote and who wasn’t.”
While campaign groups should not deliberately mislead, Kavanagh believes, the onus should not be on them to communicate the law to the public. He hopes the referendum commission – an independent information body which will be established in advance of the vote – will provide specific information for people living abroad on their eligibility to vote.
In response to the #HometoVote launch this week, people on the anti-abortion side have also been tweeting about coming back from overseas to cast their ballot.
Dr Ruth Cullen of the Pro-Life Campaign says they are aware of a “number of possible initiatives” to encourage people abroad to come home to vote against abortion, “but nothing definite has been finalised”.
“The sweeping assumption is that almost every Irish person living abroad wants to see legal protection withdrawn from unborn babies, and that with little prompting, they will all travel home to vote against the Eighth Amendment.
“The pro-life side can just as easily make the claim that there are as many, if not more, Irish people living abroad who appreciate the special value of the Eighth Amendment as a result of living in countries where there is zero respect for the right to life of unborn babies following the introduction of abortion.”
McGowran says that once a date for the referendum was announced, Home to Vote will organise groups to travel back from overseas together, and will fundraise for people who can’t afford to make the trip otherwise.
Those who have been abroad for more than 18 months will be encouraged to participate in other ways, by travelling in solidarity or to canvass in Ireland.
“We are looking at what worked for the [marriage equality] campaign and taking our lead from that,” she says, mentioning the success of social media initiatives such as #CallYourGranny and #BeMyYes.
Karen Twomey of Repeal Global believes that this referendum will be won or lost on the basis of conversations, and that emigrants can play a role.
“My mum was on the fence until I sat down and talked to her. Some older people, especially outside Dublin, have never talked about abortion or repeal.”
Twomey, who set up Repeal Global in 2016 with her friend Fiona Gwozdz, moved back to Ireland from Vancouver last year when she knew the referendum was upcoming.
She is now acting as a link between the Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland and the repeal groups overseas, helping them to set up affiliated social media pages, hold open meetings and host webinars on how emigrants can contribute to the campaign.
“We are encouraging the groups to hold open meetings to discuss how people can get involved from abroad, and how to talk to people about abortion in a cool and calm way. We will also be hosting webinars. It’s about giving people the facts, as well as making it personal. Everyone knows someone who has had an abortion.”
“For a lot of my friends who are living abroad and are thinking about moving back, this is an issue that is actually stopping them. One of the girls in Vancouver said there was not a hope she would have kids in Ireland. Why would she move from Canada where there is free healthcare and there are no rights over your body as soon as you get pregnant? There is choice there. People want to move back to a country where people are equal.”
For emigrant voting campaigners, the fact that so many Irish people living abroad want to vote on this issue but can’t, or could potentially do so illegally, highlights a much broader problem with Ireland’s electoral law, which they claim disenfranchises the diaspora.
Another referendum is due to be held in 2019 on whether to give Irish citizens overseas a vote for the Irish president, but groups like Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (Vica), and VotingRights.ie, believe that even if passed, it won’t go far enough; they want full voting rights for emigrants in Dáil elections and referendums.
“Referendums are so consequential since they change the Constitution, which has the potential to affect every citizen,” says diaspora campaigner Noreen Bowden of VotingRights.ie. “It is imperative that every citizen, at home and abroad, has a say. Emigrants remain stakeholders - so many will return to Ireland - and they shouldn’t be shut off because they have gone to work or study abroad for a few years.”
As McGowran has been living in London for five years now, she is not eligible to cast a ballot herself, a situation she finds “very frustrating”.
“Ireland is still my country. It is where I am from and where I plan to return to. I would love to have a vote on this. It is very frustrating that I don’t have a vote, particularly for a referendum, because they are a matter of the direction the whole country is going in, it is not about local politics or personalities,” she says.
“The Constitution can make such a huge difference in how people live their lives. It is also about how the country is perceived abroad, and whether or not you want to come back to live there again.”
Sarah’s story: ‘It is very frustrating not to have a vote’
“Sarah” was 19, in her second year at college in Dublin, when she got pregnant accidentally. She was not in a supportive relationship and didn’t feel she had the emotional maturity to give her best to a child. “I knew straight away what my decision was going to be,” she says.
Sarah had friends living in a country in mainland Europe where abortion was legal, so she travelled there for the procedure. Almost two decades later, she finds it hard to believe young Irish women still have to go through a similar experience in order to access a termination.
Having lived in London for 11 years now, she has no vote in the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment, but feels strongly that emigrants like her should still be able to have a say.
“There are so many young Irish professionals like myself living in London who still really care about the country,” she says.
“My husband and I have been talking about wanting to bring our children up in Ireland closer to our families. But for me, this is a big issue. If this referendum doesn’t pass and there is no significant change to the legislation, I can’t see myself wanting to move back to Ireland.
“It is very frustrating not to have a vote on an issue that affects my future. So many other countries have systems for emigrants to vote. The reputation of Ireland rides high on our diaspora, and to deny those same people a stake in their own democracy seems very unfair.”