The votes back home: is the diaspora disenfranchised?

Emigrants are divided about voting from abroad: some are angry, some are apathetic

At a meeting hosted by the London Irish Lawyers Association to debate the future of Seanad Éireann, about 80 Irish people are packing out the National Liberal Club in London. Most of them are graduates under the age of 30. The irony of this becomes more glaring as the night goes on: these Irish professionals are debating a constitutional issue over which they will have no say. As emigrants, they will not be entitled to cast a ballot on Friday.

"Some of these young people are just shocked that they can't vote," says Mary Hickman, professor of Irish studies at London Metropolitan University and chairwoman of Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad, a London-based group that has campaigned since 2010 to extend the franchise to all Irish-born citizens. "They can't believe they are disenfranchised when they leave the country. Many who attended that meeting hadn't realised, or hadn't thought about it before."

Today and tomorrow, the Convention on the Constitution will meet to discuss the possibility of granting Irish citizens abroad the right to vote in presidential elections. Advocates of emigrant voting rights believe it is a positive first step but no substitute for full rights to cast a ballot in national elections, a right enjoyed by citizens of at least 120 countries who are living away from home.

A survey by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in 2007 found that 115 of the world’s 214 nations allowed voting from outside the state. Sixty-five of the 115 countries allowed external voting for all; 26 imposed some restrictions, based on the length of time the person had lived abroad, their intention to return, their location and their profession.


Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad wants votes to be given in presidential elections to all three million passport holders but for Dáil and referendum votes to be limited to the million Irish-born emigrants through dedicated constituencies reserved for the Irish abroad.

Presidential support
The President and his two immediate predecessors have spoken favourably about the issue. President Michael D Higgins has said he would like to see Irish emigrants retaining a vote for 10 years.

Minister for Tourism Leo Varadkar said last year that extending the franchise to all citizens "would be a nice thing to do", echoing Fine Gael and Labour's promise in their Programme for Government to give emigrants voting rights in presidential elections.

Since the early 1990s most political parties have made similar pre-election statements, but no government has delivered.

Of the more than 1,500 emigrants who responded to an online survey by University College Cork’s Emigre project that was published yesterday, 85 per cent were in favour of granting votes to emigrants in presidential elections; 80 per cent agreed in the case of general elections.

The research also shows that many Irish people abroad remain engaged with current affairs in Ireland. As Piaras Mac Éinrí, a researcher in the department of geography at UCC describes it, they are "simultaneously residents of the host land . . . while retaining virtual residence of the homeland".

But not all emigrants feel entitled to a vote, or are bothered about the issue either way. Claire Barry of Mind Yourself, a mental-health charity that works with Irish people in Britain, told emigrants' organisations in London recently that there was "apathy" among the Irish community.

A discussion on the Irish Times Generation Emigration blog this week produced very mixed views. While some commenters expressed anger at their disenfranchisement, others said they didn't feel entitled to a vote because they had lived away from Ireland for such a long time, or didn't pay taxes here.

No taxes, no vote?
The argument of "no representation without taxation" is commonly used against extending the franchise to the Irish abroad. But one long-time advocate, Noreen Bowden, has pointed out on her blogs, and, that voting rights are linked to citizenship whereas taxation is linked to residency.

“The economic value of the diaspora is so enormous that it is ironic we are so hung up on the fact that they don’t pay income tax,” says Bowden, highlighting that the US is the only developed country that taxes its expats.

Others have argued that emigrants who are motivated enough to vote from abroad might be more partisan, or inclined to cast an “angry” ballot against whoever was in power, which could skew the result. But the results of a “symbolic” online vote in both the general and presidential elections in 2011, cast by more than 8,000 Irish emigrants through, were broadly in line with the real election results.

Bowden says it is also a mistake to argue that allowing overseas citizens a vote would be giving them power to contribute to the making of laws that won’t affect them.

“The state of the economy may determine whether or not they will be able to return home if they wish, but overseas citizens may also be affected by decisions made about social welfare, education, taxation, immigration, broadcasting and consular protection, even if they plan never to move back,” she says.

The 100 members of the Convention on the Constitution will vote tomorrow on whether to bring a recommendation to the Oireachtas to grant voting rights to emigrants in presidential elections.

“Giving emigrants a vote in the presidential election is important. It would be a symbolic gesture, a step up from Mary Robinson’s candle in the window,” says Bowden. “But we need more than symbols now. Emigrants have a role to play in Ireland’s future, and policies at home can have real effects on their lives.”

Generation Emigration is the Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad: generationemigration, @GenEmigration