Steven Lydon is a recently-disenfranchised Irish PhD candidate in German Philosophy at Harvard University.
The upcoming presidential election has once again drawn international attention to Ireland, but this time in a more positive light.
This is in large part due to the exciting nature of the contest: among the candidates are Michael D. Higgins, a gifted orator, poet, and social activist; David Norris, the charismatic flag-bearer of James Joyce and gay-rights; and Martin McGuinness, former IRA leader and principle orchestrator of the peace process in Northern Ireland, draw the bulk of media attention.
But the presidential campaign has also thrown some light on an issue of increasing importance: the voting rights of Irish citizens abroad.
Under Irish electoral law Irish citizens cannot cast a ballot if they live outside of Ireland. If you attempt to vote, you've committed electoral fraud and could face two years in prison.
This is no insignificant fact given that at least 60,000 Irish citizens have emigrated in the last three years, in large part due to the economic catastrophe that took place under the former Fíanna Fáil-led government.
According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) emigration mushroomed by 81% in the period from 2006-2010, bringing net outward migration from Ireland to its highest level since the late 1980s. An estimated 3.1 million Irish passport holders live abroad, 800,000 of whom are Irish-born.
"As an Irish citizen abroad, I neither have the right to vote in my adopted country nor the country of which I am a citizen. I have effectively been removed from democracy," said Tim Mac An Airchinnigh, an Irish emigrant living in France. "The Irish government is terrified of giving its emigrants the vote precisely because those emigrants have such a vested interest in voting. This is the real human fallout of the current system's immense failures, and no government wants (to give) such people access to democracy. They know too well the answer they'll get."
Hugh McCafferty has been living in Japan for two years. "I intend to return to Ireland in July 2012. By that time, I will have missed a general election (2011), a presidential election (2011), and a referendum (2009, Lisbon II). I will return to a country very different to the one I left and a political landscape that I was given no opportunity to shape," he said. "If Ireland wants to attract its best and brightest back home, it must give them some stock in Irish society and allow them to remain engaged meaningfully in political and social affairs."
This situation is becoming ever more unusual in an international context. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IIDEA) reports that a total of 115 countries provide their citizens with voting rights in national elections to varying degrees, including Germany, Spain, France, and Australia.
The Irish president cannot constitutionally implement change in this area. In terms of political power, it is a limited, largely symbolic office. However, presidents can and do call attention to specific political issues, making use of the platform afforded them. Over the course of the current campaign, candidates have commented on the issue during speeches abroad.
Higgins is the only candidate to support general election voting reform. He suggested in a recent speech to Irish emigrés in London that “one formula that I believe is worthy of consideration is that those who were on the electoral register, or would be entitled to be on it, should be able to retain the right to vote in some, or all, elections for a specified period, perhaps five to 10 years.”
Norris has come out in favor of emigrant voting rights, but only in presidential elections.
His stance on the issue of general elections is less clear, claiming that "the old saying of 'no representation without taxation' may apply."
Norris's position on this issue is unusual, as it is one normally voiced by conservative commentators,who invert the rallying cry of 18th century American revolutionaries. However, the argument is seriously undermined by the fact that no other nation links expat voting with expat taxation.
The U.S . is the only developed nation that requires its citizens abroad to pay taxes on money earned abroad, but it required the payment of taxation on foreign-earned income long before it granted voting rights to expats, and voting is not conditional on the payment of taxes. Likewise, the payment of taxation is not required for voting rights for Irish residents.
Some object to emigrant voting because they fear that voters who live in Ireland would be outnumbered by the number of people who would be eligible to vote from abroad. However, most proponents of emigrant voting limit their proposals to only Irish-born people living abroad. Furthermore, international experience would suggest that only a small proportion of those would be interested in voting.
Others suggest that Irish people abroad quickly lose touch with the country, and can’t stay informed enough to vote responsibly. But that argument is weakened by the numerous news sources available online. Indeed, voters within the country are not required to demonstrate their knowledge of Irish affairs.
Few are willing to take a concrete stance on this issue in the Dáil, Ireland's parliament. The Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney is an exception. During the last election campaign he is on record as saying that the exclusion of recent Irish emigrants from the general election was “obscene,” and said his position had not changed since becoming a minister.
However, he also noted that the legal advice received on emigrant voting “hasn’t been overly positive to date. If extending the franchise to expats requires a constitutional referendum, that could not happen until next year at the earliest." No consitutional referendum on the issue is currently scheduled.
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