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Expat Briefing Editorial Team
14 August, 2014
Increasingly, expats are being disenfranchised in the land of their birth, either by complex rules which inadvertently make it difficult for some expats to vote or by deliberate restrictions. Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t seem to be improving very much for those expats keen to still have a say on affairs in their country of origin.
Some might argue that, if you have chosen to live permanently in another country, particularly for tax reasons, then you have also abdicated certain rights and privileges in the country of your birth, like voting. On the other hand, things aren’t always that simple. For those of us born in democratic countries, the vote is one of our most precious rights, so why should this right be so easily extinguished the moment you leave for foreign shores? What’s more, it is rare that an expat will have completely severed links with their country of origin, even if they are living abroad on a permanent basis. In most cases family ties will still exist, and they might, for example, be putting their children through school there too. There is also a fair chance they will still be paying tax to the Government in their former home, on income or other assets like property.
Therefore, the vote remains important to a lot of expats around the world. Governments, it seems, don’t always agree.
Last year, Australia's Labor Party paid for billboard adverts in Hong Kong that urged expats living in the city to vote for then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the forthcoming election. Around 10,000 out of the 80,000 Australians living in the city were expected to vote. However, current Australian voting rules do not make it easy for Australian expats to participate in elections at home.
Currently, an enrolled Australian who has been abroad for less than three years can register as an overseas voter, although they must indicate an intention to return to Australia within six years of their departure. After six years, voting status can be retained only on a year-by-year basis, and again an intention to return "at some time" must be expressed. Overseas Australians who miss an election may also be removed from the electoral roll. Those who lose their enrolment status can have it restored only by returning to Australia and taking up residence again for at least one month.
The Southern Cross Group, which lobbies for reform, argues that these restrictions are unfair, and compare unfavourably with the situation for US expats, who retain life-long voting rights. Anne MacGregor, who co-founded the group, told the media that many Australians were surprised to discover they could no longer vote, and she described the Australian diaspora as a "big fleet of roaming ambassadors." She added that expat votes could have an important impact on marginal seats.
However, there are no signs that the Liberal/National Government intends to change these rules.
British expats have a better deal in that they only lose their right to vote in UK elections after 15 years of residing abroad. Nevertheless, some British expats feel that this time limit is still too restrictive.
One recent example that brought the expat vote issue to light was the case of Harry Shindler, a British national who has lived in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, since 1982 with his Italian wife following his retirement.
Under primary legislation in force in the UK, British citizens residing overseas for less than 15 years are permitted to vote in parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. Having lived in Italy for over 30 years then, Mr Shindler clearly no longer meets this requirement. When he challenged this law in the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that it had completely disenfranchised him while at the same time breaching his freedom of movement under the EU Treaty, the judges disagreed.
Mr Shindler complained that no time-limit should be imposed on the right of EU citizens resident abroad to vote in their country of origin while they retained the nationality of that country. He maintained that he had retained very strong ties with the UK: as a retired serviceman of the British Army he receives a pension from the State paid into a British bank account on which he pays tax; he also has family members in the UK.
Unfortunately for Mr Shindler though, the Court was satisfied that the 15-year rule legitimately confined the parliamentary franchise to those citizens with a “close connection” to the UK and who would therefore be most directly affected by its laws. It also argued that 15 years was “not an insubstantial period of time” to allow an émigré to continue to vote.
Although Mr Shindler lost his legal battle, he was awarded an MBE for his troubles in January 2014.
Another issue is that many expats aren’t aware of the 15-year rule, and some presume they lose their right to vote in UK elections the moment they expatriate from Britain. In a submission to the UK Parliamentary Working Group on Overseas Voting by Margaret Hales, a British citizen living in Spain, the lack of official information on the 15-year rule was described as "shoddy practice in the extreme." Mrs Hales explained that she had only become aware that she would lose her vote after she had been living in Spain for a year, and that MPs and Peers are uninformed on the subject.
Hales observed that disenfranchisement applies even to retired service personnel who have seen military action, and even though citizens must continue to pay tax to HM Revenue and Customs. She also quoted Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the EU Commission, as stating that: "The practice of some Member States of depriving their citizens of their right to vote once they move to another EU country is effectively tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement."
Some in the UK parliament are listening though. In June 2014, a cross-party group of MPs called for the introduction of an overseas electronic voting system to simplify the voting process for expats and encourage more expats to participate in British elections.
The group, led by Lord Norton of Louth and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, has produced a report, entitled Making Votes Count, which points out that just 23,366 expats were registered to vote in December 2011. There are thought to be 5.6m British expats, and about 3m are eligible to vote.
They said that the move would be "a signal of the extent to which the Government takes seriously the rights of UK nationals" living and working abroad. They note that a new change already being implemented allows overseas citizens to download their voting registration form. They argue that the next step would be to create downloadable ballot papers, next followed by electronic voting.
The report also recommends that greater efforts should be made to inform expats about eligibility, and to encourage them to vote. It recommends that information should be disseminated through social media as well as in media that target expats. It says that official bodies which provide services to expats, such as the Passport Office, HMRC, and the Department of Work and Pensions, could share data with election administrators or – if privacy rules do not permit this – have these agencies directly inform expats of their voting rights.
Also, it recommends that a ministerial position be created with specific responsibility for overseas British nationals, to ensure greater co-ordination. The Electoral Commission should actively seek to secure votes from at least 100,000 overseas persons.
The report argues that UK expats are an asset, and that it is unfair to assume that those living abroad have little interest in UK affairs.
The UK Electoral Commission has since said that it expects that a new online registration process will increase the numbers of overseas Brits signing up to vote, after the target for this year's Euro elections was missed by more than two-thirds.
The Commission had hoped that 25,000 expats would download the required form, although in the end there were just 7,079 downloads from outside the UK. However, there were 87,000 clicks on the Commission's online advertising, which included a special campaign aimed at British expatriates in countries with a high British expatriate population.
The Commission speculated that, for many potential voters, the process of downloading and printing the form, and then finding another British passport-holder to be a counter-signatory "was too onerous a task."
Along with its online advertising, the Commission created radio fillers for expatriate radio stations, and worked in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, expatriate groups such as Votes for Expat Brits, and the overseas networks of British political parties to create awareness. PR materials were distributed by consulates and embassies, and there was a designated Overseas Registration Day.
The new online registration system will be available in time for next year's General Election. The Electoral Commission says it will monitor its impact.
While the British voting system for expats isn’t ideal, it seems a great deal better than the harsh restrictions placed on Canadian expats – restrictions which the Canadian Government is determined to keep in place.
In May 2014, Canada's Minister for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, said that the Government intends to appeal a recent court judgment stating that expats who have been out of the country for more than five years should be allowed to vote.
In a statement, Poilievre argued that non-residents should "have a direct and meaningful connection to Canada and to their ridings in order to vote in federal elections," and said the pre-existing five-year limit is "fair and reasonable."
The limitation was challenged by two Canadian citizens who reside in the United States for work reasons. Justice Michael Penny of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that denying non-residents the right to vote is in conflict with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Although the Charter also says that its provisions are subject to "reasonable limits," Penny judged that there is a "lack of substantive evidence of any actual problem resulting from non-resident voting."
Penny observed that the Charter has already been used to strike down voting limitations. It was put before the Court that, as the legislation currently stands, a mass-murderer in prison can vote while many non-resident Canadians cannot. Penny rejected the Attorney General's argument that non-residents do not have to live with the consequences of Parliament's decisions, noting that many continue to have tax obligations in the country.
In terms of expat voting rights, perhaps the UK has the balance about right. The ECHR certainly seems to thinks so. But some British expats, like Margaret Hales, clearly think not. Australian law, which requires expats to jump through a series of seemingly endless hoops to retain their voting rights, looks on the surface to be pretty unfair, while the restrictions placed on Canadians overseas seem wholly unreasonable.
Although, for most expats, it seems inevitable that they will lose the right to vote at some point, Governments in general never seem to completely lose the right to tax them.
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