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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Diaspora Voting Rights - a Recent ECJ Ruling

Peter Spiro, the author of the excellent book Beyond Citizenship, has an interesting article up about a recent ECJ (European Court of Justice) ruling concerning voting rights for the Greek diaspora.

Unlike most EU countries Greece does not allow its citizens abroad to vote in Greek elections. Figures vary but there are around 3-5 millions Greeks living outside of their home country concentrated in places like the U.S., U.K. and Canada.  The recent Greek crisis has provoked considerable emigration with Greeks headed for other EU countries and North America.  According to this site, there are about 35,000 Greeks living in France and two of them decided to fight on behalf of Greek overseas everywhere.

In 2007 two EU civil servants living in Strasbourg who are Greek citizens asked the Greek Ambassador to France to allow them to vote from France (their country of residence) in Greek parliamentary elections.  The Greek ambassador said "no" because it was not practical for them to do so - no process existed to make this possible.

That led to the case Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos v. Greece.  The plaintiffs argued that denying Greek expatriates the right to vote in Greece elections amounted to "disproportionate interference with the exercise of their voting rights."  It appears that the Greek Constitution does indeed have a provision that allows for expatriate voting but it doesn't seem to have ever been implemented - theoretically it's possible but the mechanisms have never been put into place to make it a reality.

EU citizens living outside their hosts countries should sit up and take notice because they lost.  Here is how the ECJ ruled:
The Court notably found that neither the relevant international and regional law nor the varying practices of the member States in this sphere revealed any obligation or consensus which would require States to make arrangements for the exercise of voting rights by citizens living abroad.
So if you are a citizen of France, for example, living abroad, understand that your right to vote in France is viewed as "desirable but not mandatory" from the standpoint of the EU.  This is true even where that right may be enshrined in the national constitution.

"Out of country" or "overseas voting" is a really tough call.  Let's be honest here - many countries and their citizens do not like this idea one bit.  I've had many hostile reactions from my compatriots when they discover that, after many years abroad, I still vote in U.S. elections.  I think it's fair to ask if this a good thing or not.  This excellent report from the European Commission on overseas voting rights in the EU is worth reading because it not only talks about where the different member states and other countries are in conferring these right on their expatriates, it also gives some pros and cons.  Here are some of the arguments in favor:
  • Citizens are citizens wherever they are and should have the same rights regardless of where they live
  • Overseas voting allows these citizen to participate in the "political life of the nation."  Though they live abroad they still have an interest and a stake in home country politics.  Voting is one way they maintain a tangible connection with the home country. 
  • Not allowing them to vote would be discrimination.  Expatriates would be unequal to resident citizens.
  • If overseas citizens lack the right to vote in their home countries and in their host countries, then they effectively have no right to vote at all, anywhere.  This shuts them out of any democratic process.
And here are some of the arguments against:
  • Citizens abroad may be less concerned with or even have very limited knowledge of issues in the homeland.  I have absolutely no stake in American Social Security (U.S. state retirement program) so is it reasonable that I have a voice about what happens to it?  There is something to that "tenuous link" argument.
  • Countries that have lots of citizens abroad could see their elections skewed by overseas voters.   This could happen in the U.S. in certain state elections but it could also be true of other countries that have large numbers of emigrants abroad.  It is possible that their vote could change the course of home country politics.
  • It may be impractical.  There has to be a process for overseas voters to exercise the right to vote and some countries may simply lack the means to make it possible. 
It's quite a conundrum and, frankly, as proud as I am of my King Country voter card, I can see both sides.  Is this a topic on which, as member of the American Diaspora, I would be willing to negotiate?  Absolutely.  I don't speak here for anyone but myself but I would consider trading my U.S. voter rights for the right not to be taxed by or report my assets to the U.S. government.  I'm sure some of you would violently disagree with that but I think it is an option that we could discuss. 

All diaspora past, present and future rights are the result of negotiation between the home country and the "Domestic Abroad."  The expatriate Greeks may have lost this round but I don't think they should give up.  If this is something they really want then surely something could be arranged.  And, for those of you who are fortunate enough to be citizens of countries where voting rights and even direct representation are a fait accompli, be careful.  They have been given but they could be taken away and, in the case of Europe, this could happen with nary a peep of protest from the EU since it seems to be a "nice to have" and not a fundamental right.


Eric said...

On the bright side, at least now our host countries don't complain when home countries let us participate in elections. For the Peruvian and Brazilian diaspora it's even mandatory (I think they're the only countries whose compulsory voting laws apply even to overseas citizens). But back in the mid-20th century this was a bigger problem. E.g. when Taipei tried to hold elections among the Chinese diaspora in 1947, France and the UK didn't allow it in their Southeast Asian colonies because they thought it would lead to pro/anti-Communist political conflict, while the Philippines saw it as a violation of their sovereignty.

So after that Taipei came up with a system whereby each party had to name a certain proportion of overseas legislators on their party list, but then the seats for overseas legislators were allocated based on domestic voting. So at least the diaspora had a voice, but the "overseas legislators" had to put party politics first, and anyway they were entirely disconnected from the diaspora's primary concern: overseas legislators had no trouble getting ID cards (basically, full citizenship rights) after leaving office, whereas for the rest of the diaspora this was an increasing barrier to settlement in Taiwan --- until finally in the end they ended up being treated on terms no better than foreigners (unless they had relatives in Taiwan).

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Eric, I hadn't thought about it from the perspective of the host countries. Here in France the reaction tends to be pretty positive as long as I tell them I'm voting for Obama. :-) He's really well-liked here - even my confessor (a Jesuit priest) is a fan.

But as you point out there are other places and other situations where it might be viewed kindly. Does the system Taipei designed still exist? And I didn't know about Peru and Bolivia - it's really mandatory?

Mr GOparigolo said...

Isn't it, as you mention, related to paying your taxes ? If you are good enough a citizen to pay your taxes, aren't you automatically interested enough in your passport-country to vote ?

I know I would gladly get rid of both, if I could (that includes the occasional possibility of being represented by David Douillet, as a "français de l'étranger"... Oh well...)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you for stopping by the Flophouse and for the comment which made me stop and think about the connection between taxes and interest in voting.

Clearly, if you pay taxes, then you have every interest in following and trying to influence home country politics.

But what if you don't pay taxes? This is true of nearly half of Americans in the homeland and probably a lot of overseas Americans who earn less then the FEIE exclusion. Is the fact that they don't pay mean that they aren't interested in voting? Or if we really want to make folks angry, we could imply that people who don't pay taxes have no stake in their country and perhaps should not have a voice at all whether they live in the homeland or not. :-)

That's a tough one, isn't it? What do you think?