Tuesday 20 August 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Let's make it easier for citizens to vote - both here and abroad'

Our electoral system needs an overhaul, and extending the franchise to Irish people living overseas should form part of that, writes Liam Weeks

'Of the 14 EU countries that directly elect their president, Ireland is one of only three (Cyprus and Slovakia being the other two) that does not extend the franchise to all its citizens' (stock photo)
'Of the 14 EU countries that directly elect their president, Ireland is one of only three (Cyprus and Slovakia being the other two) that does not extend the franchise to all its citizens' (stock photo)

Happy Bastille Day. Today marks the 230th anniversary of the storming of the infamous Parisian prison, a key event in the French Revolution that triggered enormous social and political upheaval.

There has been no equivalent storming of the Dail over the Government's announcement last month to have a referendum on overseas voting, but there have been considerable rumblings of disquiet.

Specifically, what has some people up in arms is the rather mild proposal to allow Irish citizens living abroad to vote in presidential elections. This proposes a move away from the current legislative arrangement that you must live and vote here to participate in the electoral process.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

This limitation may come as a surprise to those who participated in recent "home to vote" campaigns, but the only exceptions permitted are for those still deemed to be ordinarily resident in the State. This includes members of the defence forces, diplomatic staff, and Irish citizens temporarily abroad for less than 18 months.

While the first two groups are provided with a facility to vote overseas, the latter must travel home to vote. But we are aware, anecdotally, that many of those engaging in this journey were not residents temporarily overseas, were not entitled to vote, and their ballots should not have been counted.

But they were, and this could have had serious implications for the integrity of our elections. What if the abortion or marriage equality referendums had been passed by narrow majorities, as was the case with divorce in 1995?

Would there have been grounds for an appeal by the opponents of these amendments, especially considering most of the home-to-voters were on the Yes side?

In spite of this anomaly, a significant body of opinion does not favour regulating for these citizens, and prefers to deny them a (legal) franchise. It is perhaps surprising that an issue concerning so inconsequential an office as the presidency should attract the level of ire that the Government's proposal on overseas voting has generated.

It is not as if it is a radical new departure. Of the 14 EU countries that directly elect their president, Ireland is one of only three (Cyprus and Slovakia being the other two) that does not extend the franchise to all its citizens. We are out of kilter with the general comparative experience, as overseas voting is currently permitted in over 120 regimes. This provision is especially important in countries which have large proportions of their citizen population living abroad, such as ourselves. Governments in these countries are keen to promote an image of inclusivity, to sell the idea that they represent all the nation, not just those confined to the State's borders.

As the Taoiseach acknowledged recently, it is important to distinguish between Ireland as a nation and a State. If we see it as the former, then it is argued that all citizens, across all borders, should be represented by the State's institutions. If the latter, then the franchise should be restricted to residents of the State.

While many have taken to the airwaves and print in favour of the residency principle, the constitution makes no such link between having a vote and residential status. It confers the franchise based on citizenry.

No reference is made to basing it on if someone pays tax in the country. The 18th Century slogan of the American revolutionaries, "no taxation without representation", originally a protest against British plans to tax the colonists who didn't have a vote in House of Commons elections, has been misconstrued by opponents of citizen-based voting to read "no representation without taxation".

If the franchise was granted on this economic basis, would this mean taking the vote away from Irish citizens resident in Ireland who are on incomes too low to warrant their paying tax? In 2018, Revenue calculated this to be more than one in three residents. And what about artists earning less than €50,000 annually? They are exempt from paying income tax, so should they lose their vote?

In fairness to those opposed to overseas voting, I don't think the low-waged or artistic communities are their target.

Rather, there is a genuine fear about the size of the overseas citizenry compared to the domestic population. It is estimated to be about 3.6 million, with 1.9 million of those in Northern Ireland and almost 1 million in Britain.

These fears are particularly manifest amongst those who perceive a difference between Irish people living here and those living abroad, with the belief that this will translate into the political world, potentially resulting in the election of a candidate not favoured by the resident population.

To be fair, there are examples of presidential elections elsewhere where an overseas community swung the result. This was shown to be the case in Romania for its 2009 and 2014 elections, with the Romanian emigrant community having different political preferences to their compatriots back home. They proved decisive in re-electing President Traian Basescu in 2009, who won by 70,000 votes, with a large majority of the 147,000 emigrant votes cast being in his favour.

But to those who fear a similar event in Ireland, this should not be a motivating factor to reject overseas voting. It's equivalent to saying to people that we'll only grant them a vote if they won't have a say on the outcome. Likewise, the reassurance from defenders of overseas voting that few citizens abroad will register for this option is both irrelevant and misleading. It is tantamount to admitting that the opponents of this provision may have a point.

If citizens overseas were granted a vote, it could certainly be decisive in a tight contest. Just as the votes of south Dublin were when divorce was passed in 1995.

Any group's vote can have an impact when it is counted. That is the inevitable consequence of giving them the franchise.

It is not surprising that many Irish emigres abroad resent the fact that not only do they perceive themselves to be deprived of the opportunity to remain in Ireland because of failed economic policies, but that they are also deprived of an opportunity to participate in our electoral and democratic process.

This has undoubtedly been a factor in successive Irish governments ignoring this issue. They naturally fear what the backlash might be from Irish emigrants, and the partisan preferences of overseas voters have been factors in the regulation and availability of this facility in a number of other European countries.

But to deny Irish citizens a vote on the basis of their perceived political leaning is not only wrong; it is fundamentally undemocratic.

Either we are in favour of granting citizens a vote or not. Questioning how they would choose to exercise their franchise should not be up for discussion.

Regardless of the result, this referendum is but the tip of an iceberg concerning a number of issues with how we run elections.

Not only do we exclude our citizens overseas from voting, we also make it difficult for those resident here.

Voters have to go to one polling station on one election day, making it difficult for those with mobile lives. The electoral register is a mess, with Professor Michael Marsh saying our turnout figures are a "work of fiction". And we have no electoral commission to assist both voters and authorities, resulting in larger than desirable numbers of spoiled ballots, and longer than necessary counts.

The whole electoral process needs an overhaul, but given the authorities' procrastination on this issue, it might take a Bastille-like moment to spur them into action. Vive la revolution.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the department of government & politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss