Voting for a vote for the Irish abroad
The planned referendum on overseas voting rights will raise questions that go to the heart of what it means to be an Irish citizen
Irish diaspora: the overseas electorate could exceed the 1.7 million people who voted in the 2011 presidential election. Illustration: Digital Vision/Getty
Two weeks after finishing university, in 2013, Dean Duke left Ireland for London and a career as a political lobbyist. He believes that he and other Irish citizens abroad should be allowed to vote in elections back home.
Duke travelled home to cast his ballot in the 2015 marriage-equality referendum, but he can’t see himself returning to vote every time there’s a general or presidential election or another referendum. He finds it annoying that Irish expats cannot vote in their home elections while their British and French counterparts can.
“That is something I don’t have,” he says. “I still feel Irish. I keep up with what’s going on in Ireland, and I would like to continue to have a say. We are so out of step with the rest of the democratic world. Most countries have a global concept of citizenship. The Irish Government excludes emigrants as soon as we step off the island.”
Across the Atlantic, in another outpost of the globe-spanning Irish diaspora, Isobel Murray lives in Washington, DC. She is a lawyer who emigrated to the United States in 1989 and holds dual Irish-American citizenship.
Murray says she does not feel entitled to a vote after living abroad for more than two decades, because she does not pay Irish taxes and does not have the same investment in schools, healthcare or the basic social contract between citizens and government as people who live and pay taxes in Ireland.
“I feel it would be too easy for a very big, external block of emigrants to have a disproportionate impact on an Irish referendum or election,” she says. “And I have seen how many long-time emigrants can have an inaccurate impression of current issues in Ireland.”
A compromise solution for her would be to allow Irish citizens to keep their vote for up to 10 years after leaving Ireland but to withdraw that right should they take citizenship in another country. “It’s not fair to influence politics in a country you don’t live in,” she says.
Duke and Murray represent the divergent opinions expressed since Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced in the US on Sunday that the Government will hold a referendum on whether to allow Irish citizens living abroad, including those in Northern Ireland, to vote in presidential elections.
The referendum is likely to take place in 2018 but not in time for that year’s election, so the earliest relevant presidential ballot, if the vote is in favour, would be in 2025.
Kenny says the move would be “a profound recognition of the importance that Ireland attaches to all of our citizens, wherever they may be” – although that recognition has been a long time coming. About 130 countries allow their emigrants to vote in domestic elections, and as far back as 2013 a majority of the Convention on the Constitution – 78 of its 100 members – voted that Ireland should extend the right to vote to citizens living abroad.
In 2014 Ireland was one of just five European Union countries criticised by the European Commission for disenfranchising its citizens by denying those living abroad the right to vote at home.
“I wouldn’t blame Ireland for being a bit slow on the uptake, but I do feel that it is time,” Noreen Bowden, the New York-based cofounder of votingRrights.ie, who lived in Ireland for about 15 years, says. “It is going to be increasingly difficult for Ireland to maintain a good relationship with its citizens abroad if people realise the Government doesn’t give its citizens what most other governments in the world give.”
The referendum is likely to raise questions that go to the heart of what it means to be an Irish citizen and the democratic rights of individuals living in a far more mobile, globally connected world.
If you are not subject to the laws of a country, should you be entitled to vote in that country’s elections? Should emigrants continue to have a say in the country that they left and, if so, for how long? Should the voting rights of citizens abroad be extended to the descendants who have an affection towards the country of their ancestors and might celebrate that heritage only on St Patrick’s Day?
Public opinion, if measured by respondents to an Irish Times online survey this week, differs widely: some believe that long-time emigrants and their descendants should get no vote; others would like to extend the vote beyond that for a symbolic head of state to general and European elections, along with referendums.
The size of the Irish diaspora, estimated at up to 70 million worldwide, including 40 million in the US, potentially complicates matters, although the actual number of people with Irish citizenship entitling them to vote is a fraction of those numbers.
Still, estimating the size of a potential overseas Irish electorate, and whether it should be limited to citizens who were born, have spent time or have voted in Ireland, will be among the first challenges on the path to the referendum.
The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government will publish a paper by the end of the month, setting out options on voting and voting eligibility, though Minister of State for the Diaspora Joe McHugh has already said that the Government would consider online voting.
The Government has no exact figure on the number of Irish citizens outside the State. The Department of Foreign Affairs says that initial estimates put the figure at 1.73 million outside the island of Ireland, but that excludes Irish citizens in Northern Ireland or people in the North entitled to citizenship. It also does not include the people who may be entitled to Irish citizenship through descent.
The overseas electorate could therefore be almost as big as the 3.2 million who had the vote in the 2011 presidential election and exceed the 1.7 million people who actually voted in that election.
“If a country has a very generous or indefinite transmission of citizenship through descent, and combines that with a broad range and easily accessible voting-for-citizens brand, then you could have a very large electorate abroad, as in the case of Italy, ” Iseult Honohan, a political scientist at University College Dublin, says.
Fears that an expatriate electorate could sway a domestic election have proved unfounded to date, at least in Europe. While tens of millions of Italians living abroad could vote under Italy’s generous citizenship laws, just 2.9 million registered to vote in the 2008 general election and, of those, only 1.5 million cast a ballot, out of 39 million votes.
France, which has allowed overseas voters to cast ballots for 69 years, has a high turnout among expatriates, including through the the country’s direct election of 11 members of parliament by an estimated 2.5 million expatriates, a measure introduced in the 2012 election.
If Irish expat voting were to be extended to parliamentary elections, the French system would be one of the fairest to emulate, according to advocates of overseas voting. “It gives them a clear voice,” says Bowden.
Mary Hickman, who, with Dean Duke, oversees the Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad group in London, describes as laughable the suggestion that 40 million Irish-Americans might vote or that, as floated on Irish radio this week, the vote should not be extended to citizens in the United States and elsewhere, as they were more likely to vote for Sinn Féin. “The basis of democracy is that you have to accept what people do with it,” she says.
Honohan points to the 2012 French parliamentary elections, when the right-wing UMP party (now Les Républicains), which initiated legislation creating 11 “reserved constituencies” for overseas citizens, was expected to win most of these seats but came away with only three.
“Often enough, when voting powers are extended to citizens abroad, it is not easy to predict what the political leanings of people will be . . . They are not necessarily a homogenous bloc,” Honohan says.
Supporters of voting rights for citizens abroad dispute the notion that the vote should be denied to the Irish abroad because they pay no tax in Ireland or are unaffected by Irish Government policy.
Noreen Bowden points out that many emigrants still own property in Ireland and are affected by taxation policy, while budgets for emigrant groups, broadcasting policy, pension levels, consular support, and access to citizenship for descendants and spouses are decided by the Government and all affect citizens overseas.
“That is the biggest misconception: that Irish people not living in Ireland are not affected by policy in Ireland,” Bowden says. “The tax issue encapsulates that.”
For others the right to vote is overdue recognition of the country’s long-supportive diaspora, connecting the Government’s rhetoric with action, particularly after turning to the wealthy Irish abroad for financial support and guidance during difficult economic times at home.
“It gives citizens abroad that bond with the home country. You saw that bond with the marriage referendum: they came back in droves,” Billy Lawless, Ireland’s first “diaspora” Senator, who is based in Chicago, says. “We want to retain that bond. Ireland is still home, even if you live abroad.”