Diaspora unlikely to ‘swamp’ vote in future elections, report says

Giving citizens abroad a vote in presidential ballots could cost €21m per election

Billy Lawless: The diaspora senator said Ireland had “strayed from the inclusive spirit” of the 1916 Proclamation and the Constitution. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Billy Lawless: The diaspora senator said Ireland had “strayed from the inclusive spirit” of the 1916 Proclamation and the Constitution. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Some 3.6 million Irish citizens abroad, including residents of Northern Ireland who have a right to citizenship, could vote in a presidential election if a referendum is passed giving the Irish diaspora the right to cast a ballot.

The Departments of Housing and Foreign Affairs has said in an “options paper” on the referendum, announced by the Taoiseach earlier this month, that the potential number of Northern Irish and overseas Irish citizens voting in an election could eclipse the 3.2 million registered to vote within the State.

The paper said they were unlikely to “swamp” domestic voters if voting follows international trends. It pointed to elections in the UK, Canada and Australia, where large numbers of expatriates are permitted to cast ballots but only a fraction actually do.

The paper notes that in the last UK elections there were 263,902 overseas electors out of an estimated overseas population of five million in December 2016. And in Canada’s 2015 general election, 15,603 overseas citizens out of an overseas population of two million were registered to vote, but only 11,000 did.

In Australia’s 2013 national elections 455,000 people were registered to vote out of an overseas population of one million. Less than 74,000 actually voted.

“While it is highly unlikely, given trends internationally, there is the possibility, in theory, that the electorate outside the State may exceed the electorate within the State at some future presidential election,” the department says in the paper.

US announcement

During his annual St Patrick’s Day visit to the US, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Government planned to hold a referendum next year on allowing Irish citizens living outside the State, including in Northern Ireland, the right to vote in presidential elections starting in 2025.

The Constitutional Convention recommended in 2013 that voting should be extended to the Irish diaspora, bringing Ireland in line with more than 125 countries that allow overseas citizens the right to vote.

Minister for the Diaspora Joe McHugh said during the US visit that the Government would consider online voting in a future Irish diaspora vote. But the departmental paper said it was not considering internet voting “at this point in time”.

“This method of voting continues to be the subject of conflicting views internationally in relation to the security of the systems employed,” the paper said. “The relatively recent unsuccessful experience with electronic voting in Ireland remains fresh in the memory.”

The paper estimates that a referendum would cost €15 million to €16 million. The registration of voters would cost €1.6 million to €2.4 million. The digitisation of foreign birth registration records, required to create a voting register, would cost €1 million.

The additional cost of including overseas Irish citizens in each presidential election ranges from €5.9 million to €20.6 million. This includes the cost of taking the poll and counting the votes, between €2.4 million and €8.2 million, depending on whether restrictions are applied to categories of citizens.

Absence test

The department explored the possibility of extending the vote to overseas citizens based on a limit of the number of years they had lived outside the State, similar to voting systems in Germany and Australia.

It said imposing a period of absence from Ireland as a criteria for eligibility “may not be workable”, given that the State does not track the movements of citizens. Introducing a system of oversight on residency would increase the “administrative and verification burden” on the voting system.

VotingRights.ie, an Irish-American group pushing for the diaspora vote, noted that the paper referred to 1.73 million citizens outside the island of Ireland who are not eligible to vote.

“I am stunned by the revelation that over a third of all citizens of Ireland are disenfranchised,” said Ireland’s first diaspora senator, Billy Lawless, who is based in Chicago.

Mr Lawless complained that Ireland had “strayed from the inclusive spirit” of the 1916 Proclamation and the Constitution – “and in a shocking manner, given these numbers”.

“No citizen in a republic should be treated like a second-class citizen,” he said. “The fundamental right of every citizen is to be able to vote regardless of where they live.”