Should expats have the right to vote?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


Canada is in the midst of a close election campaign, and the government recently started enforcing a law banning expatriates from voting if they have lived abroad for five consecutive years or longer. Not surprisingly, at least some Canadian expats are very angry about this:

Disenfranchised expat Canadians are organizing a "No Harper" concert in New York City to express their anger at losing the right to vote.

The aim, according to the self-described "fun-loving, recently disenfranchised, and now angry" Canadians, is to show people in Canada that they still care.

"Many people here don't have a way to participate in shaping the democracy that we grew up believing in," Marie-Marguerite Sabongui, one of the organizers, said from New York.

"Our constitutional rights are being violated…."

[T]hey are especially incensed at the Conservative government's determination to ensure that the approximately 1.4 million Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years are barred from voting by mail—as they have traditionally been able to do for decades.

Marni Soupcoff of the Canadian Constitution Foundation argues that the disenfranchisement law violates Canada's constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The issue of expatriate voting rights is significant for Canada and other democracies that have large expat populations, such as Israel (which allows most of its large expat community to vote only if they go home to do so). Even the US probably has several million citizens living abroad (most of whom are allowed to vote by absentee ballot), though they are a much smaller fraction of the population than the Canadian and Israeli expat communities.

The debate over expatriate voting raises more general questions about the criteria that democracies should use to determine eligibility for the franchise. There are plausible rationales for both the Canadian government's policy and the opposing position.

In defense of the Canadian law, one can argue that expats should not get to vote for a government many of whose laws they do not have to obey so long as they live abroad. In addition, Canada and many other countries do not tax expats who establish long-term residency abroad (though taxes are much harder to escape for many American expats). If you believe that voting rights should be limited to "stakeholders" who are subject to a government's laws and required to pay for its support, many expats don't qualify, or at least do not do so nearly as much as other citizens do. Furthermore, long-term expats may have weaker ties to their home countries. It is also possible they don't follow politics there as closely, and might make worse choices at the ballot box as a result.

On the other hand, many expatriates plan to return to their countries of origin eventually. The fact that they continue to identify with the home country and retain their citizenship suggests a measure of emotional attachment. Even while abroad, they may still be heavily affected by their home governments' policies on many issues, most notably taxation and trade.

To these traditional arguments, I would add that expats from advanced democracies are often relatively highly educated professionals. While the two are not identical, virtually all studies show that there is a strong correlation between education and political knowledge. This may be particularly true of those expats who are interested enough in politics back home to take the trouble to vote by absentee ballot. At the margin, letting expats vote probably helps diminish one of the most serious flaws of modern democracy: the problem of widespread political ignorance.

Even if expats have less of an immediate self-interested stake in government policy than those who stay at home, that doesn't necessarily mean they will make worse decisions. Most of the time, there is relatively little correlation between narrow self-interest and political opinions. A person who truly cares only about his narrow self-interest probably would not choose to vote in the first place.

On balance, I think the considerations in favor of letting expatriates vote outweigh those on the other side, at least for relatively advanced democracies like the US and Canada. Whichever way you come down on the question, the issue is another example of how democracy cannot be democratic all the way down. Before "the people" can vote on anything at the ballot box, some other entity has to determine who has the right to go to the polls in the first place.

UPDATE: Canadian legal scholar Leonid Sirota offers some related criticisms of the Canadian government's policy here.