Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Expatriate Voting: Engagement or Illusion?

There is a discussion I am following right now over at the Canadian Globe and Mail.  Over 200 comments so far in reaction to an editorial about Canadian expatriates and voting rights written by a Political Science graduate student.

Semra Sevi is arguing against a territorial basis for active citizenship in a globalized world.  "While Canada may have lots of expatriates," she says, "they are no less committed to Canada than citizens living in Canada... Choosing to live outside Canada does not make one less Canadian. The idea that patriotism and civic engagement is tied entirely to geographic location is absurd."

Absolutely, but nowhere in her article did I see an argument for expanded voting rights from the Canadians abroad themselves.  And it is worth asking if it is something they want or something that Canadians in the homeland think they should have.  It is not obvious that the franchise is useful or effective from the perspective of the diaspora.  It depends, and since she cites the US as being particularly magnanimous in this respect, allow me, an American overseas voter, to point out a few disadvantages that I have come to recognize over the years.

There is voting as a right and there is voting as a responsibility if you are a citizen of a democratic nation-state.  Even where voting is entirely voluntary, the fact that the option exists and can be exercised means that one is responsible for whatever the outcome is.  That is true whether or not one actually sends in a ballot.  As one person put it to me the other day:  Not voting means that you have decided to let the rest of the nation decide for you.  In addition, if you have the franchise you also agree to abide by the result of that vote even if you don't like it.

However, having this voting right/responsibility does not necessarily translate into political power - the capacity to be heard or to be taken into account.  It's perfectly possible to have the vote and not have a voice.  Unless there are institutions to make that vote meaningful, then it is an exercise in frustration as the expats vote and what they really care about remains at the very bottom of the national agenda.

That is the lesson that Americans abroad learned.  Overseas voting rights for US citizens does indeed look generous until one looks below the surface and sees just how unrepresented Americans abroad feel and the frustration as they try to get attention for the few issues that matter most to them.   They have very few political champions at the Federal level and the organizations that work on their behalf seem to have much greater success with government agencies as opposed to elected representatives.  There is an on-going argument about this among Americans abroad with many calling for some kind of direct representation - senators or representatives directly elected by Americans abroad (like France).

Americans abroad are a fraction of the population of the homeland:  7 million versus 300 million.  Canadians abroad are 2.9 million versus 35 million - a higher percentage which might or might not make a difference.  How many of those 2.9 million expats  who were within the 5 year limit (now defunct) bothered to register?  No idea, I could not find any statistics.  The argument in the Global and Mail editorial would have been so much more compelling if there was hard evidence that Canadians abroad were clamouring for the vote.

Sevi argues that "Canada needs to take a proactive approach to engage Canadians living abroad."  I would say from my own experience that if expatriate voting rights equal responsibility without power or effective representation, then it is clearly NOT the best way to engage that country's expatriate community.  If the franchise is simply a symbolic gesture to show how very hip and global a country is (or an excuse to extract money/support from them), then it isn't for the expats at all - it's all about the homeland's self-image (and self-interest) - and that is a terrible place to begin a  dialogue with one's diaspora.


Jordan said...

As a Canadian I have reservations about this simply based on how Canadian federal ridings work. For one thing they are regularly redrawn. The Last riding you lived in may not exist when you cast your vote. Secondly, there are certain geographic areas in Canada which have become ethnic enclaves (think Chinatown, Little India). A riding with enough people who used to live there now living abroad could be problematic. Just for example we realized there were hundreds of thousands of Canadian Citizens living in Lebanon a few years ago when they needed to be evacuated. With enough of an ethnic voting block the election could easily be swayed one way or the other by people who no longer live there, and probably have no intention of ever returning. If I pick up and move tomorrow to France, does it make sense that in the next election I could vote in my home riding in Ontario? Yes. 30 years from now does it make sense that I could still vote there? Not how I see it. The big difference between Canada and the United States is the elephant in the room of taxation. As a Canadian if I move to France tomorrow I no longer have to pay taxes to the Canadian federal government, so why should I have a say over how that money is used?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Jordan, yes, its the taxation issue that makes all the difference. And yet I checked the overseas voter participation stats for US citizens abroad and in 2010 there were only around 200,000 civilian ballots cast (there were over 300,000 for the overseas military voters). So it's really not clear that Americans abroad value the right to vote in the homeland.

And because of how US voting works which is through the states they can and do tip elections but they are relatively insulated from the outcome of those elections. If I (and my friends in France) vote for the mayor of Seattle, it's not like that makes any difference to my life, right?

So, yes, I see your point. And back to taxation. There are lots of people subject to taxation without representation - as a migrant in France, that's certainly my case. Same for migrants in the US. In the end is that really the best argument for US expats having the vote?

Antoine Petit said...

Well, that should open up compromise possibilities: US could say that when voting rights stop then the need to file any tax papers could stop. Or, make it an option to have them both stop by the expats choice.
It's a bad compromise, but they should at least come to the table with something.
And of course, we know it won't happen, because the large majority of US voters overseas will vote Democratic--even as they know the Democratic position regarding FBAR/FATCA/CBT. So, the Democratic party has no interest in stopping overseas votes even while it has no interest stopping taxation of its own constituency. Hence, little chance for any compromise proposal there.

P. Moore said...

I think Jordan has hit the nail on the head. The elephant in the room is taxation. In the case of the US, it is obviously taxation without representation or much of anything else for that matter (except fines and penalties)for Americans abroad. Interestingly Jordan speaks of the many Lebanese Canadians in Lebanon, but there are large groups of Canadian Citizens living in Hong Kong, China, India and elsewhere and they are VERY HAPPY to hang onto their Canadian passports while living in their original home countries. On the other hand, we are seeing a rapid growth of renunciations by US citizens abroad, with many more considering giving up US Citizenship. Seems to me that renunciations are now a form of with their feet!

James Wattengel said...

I am surprised that there were only 200,000 expat voters in 2010. But this was a mid-term election. What was the vote a presidential election year?

Anonymous said...

As always, Victoria, I enjoy your carefully thought out insights. Let me offer you two thoughts:
1. Effectiveness of voting rights. My understanding is that the "diaspora" citizens can vote in the presidential elections but not Congress (at least not in all states). In any event, their potential 7 million votes are scattered a few thousand at a time all over the country so as to render them meaningless as far as expressions of DIASPORA interests are concerned. Clearly the Constitution thinks place of residence is the most important criterion for allocating a vote. The assumption of course is that the regional divisions best enable the voters fairly to debate with each other and ultimately to bind each other more than other factors (race, sex, colour of hair etc). Logically, if the primordial weight to residence as the factor for allocating votes is to be followed, then non-residence ought to be the primary weight factor in dealing with diaspora votes. This of course leads to diaspora Congress-people or Senators (both of which would need Constitutional amendments and are thus non-starters). Italy and a few other places have them - personally, I think it silly window-dressing, but it is at least conceivable.
2. Tax is of course the elephant in the room. I take a pretty functional approach to the question. If tax is a fundamental incident of CITIZENSHIP than why are non-citizen residents (and corporations for that matter) taxed? The answer of course is that tax is deemed to be the price of funding services to the community and are consumed almost exclusively by its residents. Look where the money goes and why and you have a good idea what the rationale is for raising it from the people who pay it. In other words, taxation is an incident of residence in the community and participation in the economy of the community, not nationality. Examining the taxation of corporations confirms this theoretical underpinning - US corporations are only taxed on worldwide income when they bring it into the US, foreign corporations "resident" in the US but "citizens" of another country only pay tax on their US income. I am sure the CBT issue (and FATCA would be largely over with if individuals resident abroad were only taxed on their worldwide earnings when they brought them "home" to the US!). Overwhelmingly, the theoretical underpinning of taxation is residence. Taxing non-resident citizens is rationally inconsistent with taxing resident aliens.

Ultimately, I believe the best answer is the simplest one: diaspora voting is the thin edge of a wedge encouraging the homeland to assert the right to impose obligations upon them - taxation being the most obvious - which will almost inevitably produce clashes with the obligations binding them in the community where they have chosen to live. It would require material constitutional changes that are exceptionally difficult to effect. Against these costs - what exactly is the benefit? I don't see the diaspora of Canada or the US taking to the streets or courts about the issue in the same way FATCA and CBT have mobilized the US diaspora.

Antoine Petit said...

Diaspora can vote in national elections. This ought to be interpreted to include national officials, ie Congress

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oddly enough, folks, when I vote in Washington I can vote for EVERYTHING from Senator right down to levies for the local schools. Not sure why but that is how it works for me.

Anonymous, yes we vote through the states. So it is by virtue of our citizenship at the U.S. state level that we can vote in the federal elections. Isn't that interesting? A fine example of "nested citizenship"?

@James it was low because it was the midterms. But even in a presidential election it's not great. OVF has this report on what happened - lots of problems

So in 2012 EAC says that there were 606,425 ballots submitted - 53% were military, 45% civilian so that means around 300,000 ballots cast by overseas Americans (civilians) in a major election. Around 30,000 ballots were rejected by the states.

Anonymous said...

Most people don't get that excited about voting (it is not just an expat thing) and voting in the U.S. is especially complicated because of the need to register.

Part of me thinks that giving people a vote who have been out of a country for a long time isn't a great idea. I can read alot about politics, but it isn't the same as experiencing it. We actually could have an impact on voting if we all turned out for the midterm primaries, but I am not sure that those living in the U.S. would be happy with the results. I would gladly give up the vote if it meant giving up all the wretched tax forms.

One thing, too, to keep in mind is that not all of the seven million are likely to know of or be able to use their voting rights. The State Department is pretty cagey about who Americans abroad actually are, but if you look at the stats on U.S. born persons available from foreign censuses, the lack of voting is not surprising. First of all, not all 7 million are voting age. The average U.S.-born Mexican is a kid in their mid-teens in a Mexican-headed household, so lots of them couldn't vote if they wanted to. Then there are the citizens whose citizenship was reinstated without their knowledge. In Canada, over 40% of U.S.-born Canadians in 2006 thought they weren't American, so there is no chance that they voted. The children of Americans who spent enough time in the U.S., even the unregistered ones, are also included in the seven million and many of them won't even have the right to vote in a state even if they are aware of their citizenship.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous, Great points. Thank you. I would add this (something a lot of Americans in the US don't seem aware of) and that is that Mexicans in the US can vote in Mexico. Mexico has recognized dual citizenship since 1998. So in a flash Mexican citizens naturalizing in the US could be both. Mexicans abroad got the vote in 2005 and you can read about that in this MPI report

Note that participation was not very high.

I also note that Mexicans abroad actually have some leverage in the homeland because they have something the homelands wants: remittances. Americans abroad don't have any leverage whatsoever (nothing the US seems to value) and worse, Americans in the US seem mostly unaware that there is an long-term American community abroad.