Diaspora voting proposals raise ethical and political issues

Analysis: Extending the franchise to the Irish abroad is fraught with challenges

Ballot box.ie surveyed the diaspora vote during the 2011 presidential elections. Many of the results were very different to those obtained domestically. File photograph: Getty Images

Ballot box.ie surveyed the diaspora vote during the 2011 presidential elections. Many of the results were very different to those obtained domestically. File photograph: Getty Images


On the face of it, Enda Kenny’s commitment to extending the vote to the Irish diaspora in presidential elections sounds worthwhile and deserved.

Such a generous gesture to Irish citizens living abroad also seems relatively straightforward, giving effect to one of the recommendations made by the Constitutional Convention.

The franchise for the diaspora could start as early as 2025 if the optimism of the Taoiseach, Minister of State for the Diaspora Joe McHugh and other Ministers is to be believed.

But such a fundamental change is fraught with logistical challenges, carries a big price tag and will raise a host of niggling ethical issues, as well as political headaches for parties other than Sinn Féin.

Well in excess of 100 countries allow their citizens to vote in domestic elections.

For example, anything between three million and nine million Americans living abroad – the figures are not collated – voted in last November’s US presidential election.

Citizens of the UK and France living abroad are also entitled to vote in their parliamentary and presidential elections respectively.

However, in almost all instances, some restrictions apply. In some countries, citizens abroad are not allowed to vote in all elections, just second-tier elections.

Elsewhere there are upper limits to how long a citizen has been living abroad and still be entitled to vote. In Australia it is six years, in Canada five and in the UK 15.

Passports and taxes

The Irish diaspora is huge and there are some who carry Irish passports whose only engagement with the country is on St Patrick’s Day.

In her presentation to the convention, UCD political scientist Dr Iseult Honohan pointed out issues such as emigrants lacking specific knowledge available to domestic voters.

She also referred to citizens abroad not being contributors in terms of tax or not being personally affected by the outcome, in the main.

She concluded: “While there may not be grounds for an absolute right to vote for citizens abroad, there are some strong arguments for granting votes at least to first-generation emigrants in ways that do not swamp resident citizens’ votes.

“The strongest grounds for this seem to lie in . . . the extent to which they share some of the subjection of resident citizens, and the stake that they maintain in their country of citizenship over a lifetime.”

The notion of the local vote being swamped is interesting. The expat vote in the US elections comprises a very small minority, as it does in most other countries.

Ireland is an exception to this as the extended franchise would allow citizens of Northern Ireland to vote.

In a paper to the convention, Dr John Garry, of Queen’s University Belfast, relying on 2009 data, concluded Sinn Féin would likely do well out of an extended vote.

Among Catholic voters in the North, two-thirds said they would possibly vote for Sinn Féin, while Protestant voters in the main said they would be disinclined to vote.

Overall, 30 per cent of voters in the North said in 2009 they would consider voting for Sinn Féin in a presidential election.

Distortive effect

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, politically, cannot be seen to resist the franchise being extended, while knowing the northern and diaspora vote could definitely propel a Sinn Féin candidate into the Arás.

A ginger group of Irish citizens living abroad, ballot box.ie, did a very interesting exercise around the time of the 2011 presidential election, involving more than 2,000 citizens in many countries.

David Norris attracted four times more votes (24 per cent) in the electronic survey, as opposed to 6 per cent in the actual vote.

Michael D Higgins still headed the field and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness received a modest boost.

But Sean Gallagher received only 10 per cent support from emigrants as opposed to 28 per cent in the actual vote.

Lack of name recognition abroad and lack of knowledge of the minutiae of the campaign might have a distortive effect on the outcome.