Why can’t our emigrants vote?

David Farrell (September 22 2010)

With so many of our citizens fleeing the country — many of them against their will — and so many of them ending up disenfranchised residents in foreign lands, why should we add insult to injury be denying them a say over affairs at home?

The scourge of mass emigration — that age old pressure valve so beloved of Irish policy-makers — has returned. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in the period from 2006-10 emigration mushroomed by a massive 81%; bringing net outward migration from Ireland to its highest level since the late 1980s.  The report found that Irish people accounted for 42% of those emigrating and that 27,700 Irish emigrated during the first four months of this year, with an estimated 5,000 Irish people emigrating each month.

This brings into sharp relief just how much Ireland is out of step with the majority of the world’s democracies, the bulk of which give voting rights to their citizens living overseas.  A recent report by the prestigious non-government agency, International IDEA, reports on the international trends, showing how a total of 115 countries, to varying degrees, provide their citizens with voting rights in national elections.  The regional breakdowns are as follows:

Region      No.
Africa        28
Americas  16
Asia           20
Europe      41
Pacific      10
Total       115

The usual arguments made against votes for emigrants include:

  • the usual ‘no representation without taxation’;
  • the risk of crazy voting trends from ‘greener than green’ emigrant groupings;
  • the administrative difficulty of arranging this because of our constituency-based STV system;
  • why spend precious resources when state finances are tight?

Here are some responses as an opener to possible debate. For instance, it would be easy enough to set a time limit (e.g. 15 years) on how long an Irish citizen could retain voting rights.  Given that other countries can and do provide this facility, then surely we can too; indeed, it might be argued that we have a moral duty to consider it….

12 thoughts on “Why can’t our emigrants vote?

  1. If they have degrees from TCD and NUI they will be able to vote for those respective Seanad panels. It’s not much I agree but it shows that it is feasible to do and indeed does not conflict with the intentions of the framers of the constitution.

  2. As somebody who has been living abroad for a long time, I have some thoughts on the matter:

    If we look at the practical side of the issue the constituency-based STV system does not represent a caveat per se. The Italian government established vote for emigrants in 2008 by creating 4 additional constituencies grouped by geographical regions. The same logic could apply to the Irish case; the representation of Irish nationals abroad could be achieved by adding up 4 or 5 constituencies to the existing ones. Obviously, representation in those large constituencies would not rely on the same logic of constituency linkage, but that could actually be a plus for the system at large. It would also give an insight on how different processes of representation develop.
    With regard to costs, it would certainly be an extra cost. However, if properly arranged by consulates and embassies, it would probably be affordable.
    The risk of crazy voting trends is somewhat unpredictable. In the case of Italy, the legislation in favor of the vote for emigrants was one of right wing issues par excellence. However, when the legislation was eventually passed, Italians abroad determined the success of the left-wing coalition in the 2006 election. It would be a matter of few constituencies, which may however prove to be pivotal. Are parties ready to take the risk?
    The “no representation without taxation” argument crashes against the fact that it cannot be proved that all voters in Ireland, or in any other county, are indeed taxpayers. Moreover, emigrants tend to go back to their countries, so that they may as well be taxpayers in a near future. It also cannot be ruled out that emigrants are in fact still paying some taxes in their home country.
    The moral duty to consider the matter is indeed probably there, the question is whether any party is keen on raising the issue.

  3. Most other normal countries can arrange for overseas votes so there’s no reason Ireland can’t except for the fact the politicans don’t want to do it.

    It’s unlikely those who have left Ireland are Fianna Fáil supporters so FF has no interesting extending a franchise to them, nor does FG because FG doesn’t really have any interest in deept structural political reform, once in office it will use the current system and just not be as blatently corrupt – anyone expecting a new dawn of reform under FG will be disappointed.

    As usual Labour are for and against at the same time.

    Since McDowell’s referendum people whose ancesters were Irish can’t just apply for Irish citizenship, so the franchise can be extended to anyone born in Ireland who was educated in Ireland and paid tax, at any time and even if just for one month, and they can go vote at Irish Embassies or Consulates or even online.

    I did all my voting for the Labour leadership online so there’s no reason why voting overseas can’t be done online either.

  4. The question is not whether we could enable emigrants to vote – of course it’s possible. Instead you’d need to consider a couple of issues. To what extent would you want to grant them rights equaling domiciled citizens? Why shouldn’t domiciled non-citizens be given equal rights to citizens whether it is desirable and what, if any, are the likely results?

    If you were to give non-domiciled citizens the right to vote with equal weight it is possible that they would tip the balance in an election. Is it desirable that people who do not have to suffer the consequences of the decision get to make the decision? (It’s not about paying taxes, the majority of people in the country don’t pay income tax but we still afford them equal rights.)

    If you are allocating one constituency or giving them a few senate seats to emigrants this is obviously just an exercise in symbolism, and one wonders whether it would be worth the effort. It might be easier to change the taoiseach’s nominees to some form of Diaspora panel. They wouldn’t have a great deal of power, but the voice would be heard. Given the traditionally small majorities Irish governments tend to have if emigrants were to elect TDs with votes equaling those of domiciled citizens then these voters through their representatives could have a great deal of power.

    Would it not be better to consider on what issues Irish nationals living abroad have an interest and suffer consequences of decisions made in Ireland? Perhaps changes to the constitution, in particular those ones that affect the nature of the Nation, such as Articles 2 & 3, might be appropriate for émigré citizens.

    But isn’t it morally less defensible that immigrants, living here indefinitely have little or no say, save the election of local Councillors? These people have an interest in the decisions the government makes and many pay for those decision to be implemented yet have no say.

  5. I think it would be interesting to see what deviations in voting patterns occur, if any, from national trends due to emigrant votes. My own anecdotal experience from England is that New Zealanders and Australians took a strong national perspective, whereas Italians took local factors more into consideration when voting. If Ireland allowed votes for emigrants would we see those living in the UK voting on local issues, as they remain so close? Would those in Australia, Canada, the US vote on national issues given the distance? I believe that far from Irish emigrants voting against FF ostensibly due to them being ‘driven’ from Ireland by the government, that local politics would play an important role as well (who do the family say is doing a good job etc). I say this as there are plenty of Irish people working and studying in the UK who commute back every week to play for the local GAA team! And those young Irish emigrants in Australia and Canada tend to group together on a county by county basis, and not by political allegiance.

  6. The big issue I see in allowing citizens who are not resident within the state to vote, is not the diaspora but the position of Northern Ireland. Should Irish citizens in Northern Ireland be entitled to vote in Dáil elections? Considering number of citizens who might exercise their vote from Northern Ireland, you would be introducing a huge new dynamic into Irish politics by granting non-resident citizens a vote. That is the big question that I see in this debate, and it is one which seems to go missing when people raise this question.

    This is expressed rather clumsily, but I think there is a case for all citizens of Ireland to have a vote in Presidential elections. The president is a symbol of the nation, and as such it would make sense to allow all those who are part of that nation to have a vote. However, the Dáil and Seanad are there to govern the state, and as such I don’t see the reasoning to allow groups who are not part of the state to have a vote in such matters (or for that matter, to exclude long-term immigrants in this country from the vote either).

  7. Just to point out that it is very easy to stay on the register of electors even if not resident in the State.

    Basically, a non-resident citizen who is motivated enough to vote can easily do it.

    Hence there is evidence that the “dis-interested” vote of non-resident citizens would have little effect on the election outcome because the turnout would be so insignificant.

    My position is that a non-resident citizen should not lose the right to vote purely for being non-resident.

    On the topic of electoral reform I suggest making voting in General elections & Referenda mandatory, & an available option for non-resident citizens.

  8. Regarding the four objections that were noted in the main posting – People who become emigrants due so by necessity rather than it being a career choice; if they still lived in Ireland they probably would be on the Live Register rather than in a job & paying taxes. Emigrants would likely vote for candidates offering practical solutions to create real jobs in the short term. Emigrants could vote as part of a new “at-large” constituency,which could be used also for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland. Votes could be cast at Irish embassies or consulates on paper ballots;these would be forwarded by express mail to Dublin for counting – hardly more costly than the TDs’ expenses scheme.

  9. As a matter of information in respect of New Zealand as it has been mentioned, the system there is administered by an Electoral Commission which has a highly informative web site,


    My partner is Kiwi and has voting rights in both national and local elections. New Zealanders must as I understand it register – that is compulsory although voting is not. On the calling of a general election everyone on the roll has a vote although those living overseas must make a declaration that they have returned to NZ at least once in the previous three years (general elections are triennial so that seems fair enough). New Zealanders have two votes under their system of MMR, a constituency or ‘electorate’ vote and a list vote. There is the slight complication of being able to declare if Maori or of Maori descent, for one of the Maori electorates (a determining issue here being your Iwi or tribe and its heartland). The ballot, if I recall, is posted to the nearest High Commission by a given date and it is then the responsibility of the Commission to have the papers returned to NZ. You can also stand for an electorate and a party list even if non-resident. A number of such candidates were on lists and standing for electorates at the last election. Again though I presume the three year rule applies.
    On local elections my partner has just received her papers for the forthcoming local government elections. The system of local government seems highly developed and equally civilised.

  10. > “he president is a symbol of the nation, and as such it would make sense to allow all those who are part of that nation to have a vote. However, the Dáil and Seanad are there to govern the state”

    A good point. Relatedly, in 1985 Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden proposed that Northern Ireland residents be permitted to elect a certain number of representatives to Seanad Éireann, on the grounds that this would ensure their symbolic inclusion but not upset the delicately balanced party numbers in the Dáil.

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