What should the voting rights of Canadian expatriates be?

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COMMENTARY

by Andrew Griffith & Robert Vineberg

Vancouver Sun
April 23, 2018

With the Supreme Court of Canada hearing the challenge to the current five-year limit on expatriate voting rights, advocates for expansion continue to date their case.

One common feature to such advocacy: a reliance on anecdotes and assertions, completely bereft of any serious effort to assess available data on the strength of connection to Canada.

Common arguments emphasize connections to Canada, a recent example being that of Frédéric Mégret of McGill University. Long-term expatriates “may decide to come back” but is this for family reasons or to access Canadian medicare? They “are, in fact, affected by the laws and policies of Canada” but this is largely limited given that they don’t access or are affected by government services and policies that apply to residents. “Many expatriates, even though they do not reside in Canada, do a considerable amount for Canada, directly or indirectly” but is silent that equally “many” do not. And in a theoretical sense, citizenship can be defined by “how committed one is to its ideals, how ready to give back and to invest in its political life?,” in a practical sense governments can only use crude proxy measures to assess the degree of connection to Canada.

So what do these proxy measures tell us? If we take the Asia Pacific Foundation’s estimate of the number of expatriates, and adjust by voting age and citizenship, we arrive at a baseline of just under two million. Looking at government data, we know that the number of expatriates holding valid Canadian passports is approximately 630,000 adult Canadians who have lived abroad for five years or more. We also know that the number of non-resident Canadian tax returns, a deeper measure of connection, was about 112,000 in 2015 (the last year for which information is available). And while hard to assess the potential interest of long-term Canadian expatriates in voting, the data for those who qualify under the current rules suggest there is not widespread demand (about 16,000 in the 2015 election) although this number may be depressed by the difficulty in meeting current registration requirements. These more formal indicators, albeit imperfect, suggest a smaller number of connected expatriates than some of the arguments would suggest.

An argument for unlimited voting rights means that any citizen who left Canada as a baby or small child would have unlimited voting rights. As such, the proposal disconnects voting from any experience of living in Canada, being subject to Canadian laws, accessing Canadian public services or paying Canadian taxes and thus devalues the votes of Canadians who do reside in Canada and are subject to these day-to-day realities of Canadian life.

Moreover, first generation Canadians born abroad, entitled to citizenship, would similarly be able to vote, irrespective of whether they had ever set foot in Canada.

The government has understandably chosen to await the Supreme Court decision on whether the current five-year limit is constitutional. However, it signalled its intent in Bill C-33, tabled more than a year ago, to support unlimited voting rights for expatriates. This is more generous than the practices of the UK, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, all of which impose significant conditions in order to qualify to vote abroad. While France, Italy and Portugal all allow expatriates to vote, they have established overseas constituencies in their legislatures. This prevents the will of the domestic electorate being changed by expatriate voting. In our view, residency matters.

While one can argue for a minimum of three years (as required to obtain citizenship), five years as in the current electoral rules, or some other number, citizenship is not just a theoretical construct of connection and commitment: it needs to include some measure of physical presence. The longer one has lived in Canada, the longer one should have the right to vote if living abroad. For example, if one has lived in Canada for 25 years or more, the right to vote abroad could be permanent while shorter periods of residence in Canada could entitle people to a shorter period of voting as an expatriate.

However the Supreme Court may rule on expatriate voting, the government will have to decide whether it continues to favour unlimited voting rights for expatriates or take a more measured approach to providing expanded voting rights for expatriates without the unintended consequence of diminishing the value the votes cast by Canadians resident in Canada.

Andrew Griffith is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Environics Institute. Robert Vineberg is a senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.

Image credit: Getty Images

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