In a year of significant elections, this week has been particularly eventful in electoral terms, with the Turkish referendum, the surprise announcement of a UK general election, and the first round of voting for the next French president. In each country, overseas voting has made headlines, whether because of the contribution made by Turkish expats to the referendum result, the fact that the controversial 15-year limit on British non-residents’ right to vote will not be lifted in time for June 8, or the fear of cyber-attacks which means that French citizens overseas will not be able to vote online in legislative elections scheduled for mid-June.
For people who live in democracies where they hold citizenship, voting is generally a fairly straightforward process (although there are exceptions). For long-term residents abroad (generally excluding those posted as diplomats or similar), it can be much more complicated. The UK is not the only country to limit the franchise for expatriates, although amongst current EU member states it is in a minority of five. Moreover, each country has its own ways of enabling expats to cast their ballots: the sheer diversity of this is impressive. I decided to look further into the different arrangements for overseas EU voters.
Of course, the idea that non-resident citizens should be able to vote can be questioned – is it right that people who may not be fully subject to a nation’s laws should have a direct or indirect say in making them? Should there be representation without taxation (although it is possible to be taxed in more than one country, and nowhere in Europe gives full voting rights to residents who are not citizens, however much tax they pay)? What about non-resident citizens who live in areas that used to be part of the country in question (a particular issue in central and eastern Europe), or people who have gained citizenship by descent and may never have even lived on the same continent? (See R. Bauböck, ‘Expansive Citizenship: Voting beyond Territory and Membership’, 683-7 in Political Science and Politics 38 (2005)). Conversely, worldwide only New Zealand and Uruguay grant non-citizen residents full voting rights.
But all EU countries offer some form of voting rights to citizens who live elsewhere on a more than temporary basis. As a starting-point for my investigation, the country profiles of the European Union Democracy Observatory (EUDO) on Citizenship were invaluable. Each includes an Electoral Rights report by a local political scientist, mostly dating from 2013, which covers voting rights to non-resident citizens and non-citizen residents. Not having to look up this information in over twenty languages was extremely helpful, and the reports generally appear balanced in tone (although some make more use of citations than others: the one on Slovenia states that ‘[t]here are some who challenge the allegedly overzealous ‘courting’ of the diaspora, including the lax conditions for inclusion in the electoral register and the wistful manner in which some 50,000 ballots are dispatched to addresses around the globe at every election, most of them never to be returned’, but this tantalising claim is not explained further). With the help of these reports (any unattributed statements in what follows are drawn from them) and some extra internet research, I drew up a table with the voting options that each EU country offers citizens who live permanently abroad: voting at an embassy or other official polling station abroad, voting in the home country in person, voting by proxy (i.e. appointing another citizen to cast the vote), voting by post, and voting online. I added information about the number of each country’s citizens living abroad anywhere in the world, from UN figures, and the percentage this represents of the total number of citizens, according to information from the International Organization for Migration .
Such figures will never be 100% reliable; countries and organisations do not all count non-resident citizens in the same way (some potential issues are touched on here). Moreover, I limited my focus to national rather than local elections (or European Parliament ballots, which work differently), and in any case national electoral systems of course differ hugely. Votes can be cast for single candidates, national lists (or a combination of the two), or by region or constituency. This is not a fully-fledged psephological study. But I feel that I assembled enough data to reach some general conclusions and also to point out a number of things that seemed surprising.
As already mentioned, the UK, along with Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland and Malta, limits the voting rights of citizens who live abroad. Its 15-year cut-off looks positively generous compared with Ireland, where in theory only expats who intend to return home within 18 months can vote – but this does not seem to be enforceable. Similarly, while in Denmark only permanently resident citizens can vote, this status is quite loose (it covers not only people working for a Danish company or international organisation abroad but those who live overseas for other reasons and intend to return within two years) and it seems that such a solution is easier than amending the constitution to allow for official overseas voting. Meanwhile, Cypriots must have been resident in Cyprus for the 6 months leading up to a vote to participate, while for Maltese citizens it is 6 months in the year and a half before an election. Cypriot citizens who are temporarily abroad may be able to vote at an electoral centre overseas, while in Malta subsidised flights are available to eligible voters. The only other countries where citizens permanently resident abroad must come home to vote are Ireland* and Greece, where in each case many flew back for two very different referenda in 2015. In Ireland this could change soon.
Ireland, Greece, Cyprus and Malta are all relatively small countries that make it relatively easy for (some) foreigners to acquire citizenship (Ireland and Greece by descent, and Cyprus and Malta by investing large but not necessarily enormous sums). They have sizeable diasporas. They also have significant proportions of citizens working overseas (the fifth highest, fourteenth highest, ninth highest and highest of all EU member states). These factors may well contribute to their decisions to limit the franchise to citizens who are not based abroad and/or are willing to come home to cast their votes, even if some unfairness results (apparently even Greek diplomats must vote at home). Some examples of issues that could result from changing this are raised with varying degrees of plausibility here. In this context (excluding Denmark and its wide definition of permanent residency), the 15-year limit on the franchise for British expats is even more striking. The UK is much bigger than these other countries and is much less generous with citizenship, although it does have a surprisingly large number of passport-holders overseas, even if the government does not tend to pay them much attention. It was only in 1985 that, thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s government, overseas voting became possible at all.
I should say that I was expecting to find the UK was unusual in not allowing expats to vote in embassies and that this was another sign of unwillingness to accommodate emigrants. In fact, while this is done by 18 EU member states,** several other larger ones – Italy, Germany and the Netherlands – do not provide the option, which suggests practical issues such as numbers, or security, may be relevant. Successful embassy voting is dependent on not only good organisation but also fair dealing by the organising government, as protests after the first round of the 2014 Romanian presidential election showed.***
As online voting is only available in Estonia (known for its digital innovation), and with the current state of the world meaning that other countries will probably join France in shelving similar efforts for now, expats may prefer to vote in person at home or else by post. These reasonably foolproof options are offered by 16 (not the same in each case!) EU countries.** Of course, the first may be expensive, and the second depends on a well-organised electoral authority and reliable postal services, although in some countries it seems to entail sending ballot papers to a local embassy rather than all the way home. Only Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the UK allow proxy voting – useful if you can nominate someone trustworthy who can get to the correct polling station, but less so otherwise. There may be cultural reasons why this is comparatively rare and only found in western Europe (and indeed in France questions have been raised about in-country proxy voting). It also makes France and Belgium the most accommodating of expat voting of all 28 EU countries – both offer the full set of voting abroad and at home in person, voting by post, and voting by proxy.
Finally, which countries give citizens abroad special political representation? Croatia, France, Italy, Romania and Portugal do (and overseas votes in Czech parliamentary elections are added to a voting region chosen by lottery), although this is not necessarily proportionate to the number of people voting. It is not clear if this, or any of the other measures mentioned here, leads to better advocacy for people who vote from abroad. But as long as expatriates do not have the right to vote where they have taken up residence, it seems important that they should be able to vote somewhere.
*There is one minor exception: Irish graduates of Trinity College Dublin can vote by post from any address for three seats in the Seanad Éireann, the Irish senate. UK universities were also represented in Parliament until the mid-twentieth century.
** In Hungary, controversially, only ethnic Hungarians (generally in neighbouring countries) who have citizenship by descent can vote at embassies; other expats have to vote by post.