Two Tiers of Citizenship: The Expatriate Enfranchisement Debate

Image from  Pexels

Image from Pexels

In Canada, like in many other countries, the right to vote did not come at the same time for everyone. From confederation in 1867, most male British subjects over age 21 were able to vote. In 1917, female relatives of men serving in the army received the right to vote, while British subjects who spoke an “enemy language” lost their right. In 1918, most women were federally granted the right to vote, although ease of access continued to vary drastically. Many Indigenous peoples did not receive the right to vote until much later, with status Indians only becoming enfranchised in 1960.

Today, virtually all Canadian citizens over the age of 18 are able to vote. Enfranchisement is extended to prisoners and to homeless people. For one group of Canadians, however, the right to vote remains a pipe dream. According to the Canada Elections Act, Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years do not have the right to vote in federal elections.

The enfranchisement of long-term expatriates is an issue that has long struggled to find consensus in Canadian society. The Canada Elections Act has been amended numerous times in order  to tighten or loosen the rules surrounding expat voting, leaving many Canadians living abroad with the right to vote in one election before having it taken away in the next. At times, courts have ruled that expats can vote regardless of the Elections Act, only to have this decision overturned by a higher court.

The Trudeau Liberals campaigned in 2015 on reinstating expat voting rights, and introduced Bill C-33 in late 2016. The bill, which was sponsored by the Minister of Democratic Institutions, was introduced on November 24, 2016, and then never again debated in the house. Many of the over 1.4 million Canadian expats now worry that the Liberals will not follow through on this campaign promise, and that they will once again be ineligible to vote in the upcoming 2019 election.

Allowing Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years to vote in federal elections would be unfair to those who live in Canada
— Ontario Superior Court of Justice

Beyond institutional ambivalence on expat voting rights, many Canadians also stand divided on whether citizens living abroad should be allowed to vote. Arguments on both sides of the debate are rooted in perceptions of how best to preserve Canadian democracy.

As expressed in 2015 by Ontario’s highest court, “allowing Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years to vote in federal elections would be unfair to those who live in Canada”. The anti-expat-voting side argues that the right to vote ought to be reserved for those impacted every day by Canadian policy. Allowing individuals who are negligibly affected by government actions to vote could be unfair to the Canadians who are truly impacted by the outcome of an election. With expats representing at least 1 million potential voters, they are not an insignificant force, and could potentially sway elections and policy outcomes that do not impact them as much as they would resident Canadians. Ultimately, restricting the right of expats to vote actually preserves the integrity of elections, thus strengthening Canadian democracy.

While one side of the debate argues that restricting expats right to vote strengthens democracy, the other side argues that it is a fundamental denial of democratic rights. This is the side favoured by the Liberal Party. Those in favour of expatriate voting typically argue that the other side is mistaken in believing that a Canadian abroad is necessarily less invested in domestic issues than a citizen living at home. They also argue that the right to vote is a fundamental right attached to citizenship, and that citizens abroad should not be excluded from this right. According to proponents, “citizenship is not something you check out of when you leave”. Furthermore, Canadians living abroad continue to pay income taxes to the Canadian government, despite benefitting significantly less from the services created by these taxes. In 2014, is was estimated that Canadian expats paid $6 billion in income taxes. If the responsibility of citizenship remains for Canadians living abroad, then why should their rights be subject to restriction?

With strong arguments rooted in democracy on both sides of the debate, it appears that the role of expats in Canadian democracy may remain in limbo for some time.