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.