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    Emigrant voting rights: a party guide

    By Noreen Bowden | February 9, 2011

    The emigrant vote issue has proven to be a surprisingly popular issue with political parties this year. Here’s a rundown of proposals and party positions:

    Fianna Fáil: Fianna Fáil and the Greens had promised recommendations on the feasibility of extending the franchise for emigrants in presidential elections as part of their 2009 renewed programme for government. While the promise showed great foresight at a time when interest in emigrant voting was relatively low, these proposals never appeared; Green Party member Ciaran Cuffe has said on Twitter that the government simply ran out of time.

    Onward. Fianna Fáil is again suggesting that the franchise be extended for presidential elections “to all Irish citizens, including emigrants”. This construction is slightly curious, as “all Irish citizens” would include two other large groups of citizens currently disenfranchised: those resident in Northern Ireland, and those citizens who have never lived in Ireland but who have citizenship through emigrant parents or grandparents. Fianna Fáil’s proposals to extending the right to vote to “all citizens” would by definition include them, but do they actually mean to do that? It would be a welcome move to those who value maximum enfranchisement.

    Fine Gael: Fine Gael proposes extending the vote in presidential elections to “eligible citizens” overseas. They are also unusual in proposing the mechanism to do this: through Irish embassies. While the lack of a postal vote would be problematic for those not living close to an embassy, embassy voting would be a simple way of resolving fears over security. (It would also give Irish emigrants much local press and photo opportunities, as media outlets in democratic countries love photos of expats lining up outside their embassies to vote.)

    Still, with emigrants scattered in every remote outpost the world has to offer, it’s likely that embassy voting would soon prove an incomplete answer. There are only 55 embassies around the world. The Irish Emigrant news service, for example, sends its newsletters out to more than 150 countries.

    What’s more, Fine Gael says that if the presidential voting is a success, they will extend the franchise to general elections. They do not name the criteria they will examine to determine the success, however.

    Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney has taken a particularly strong stance advocating for emigrant voting rights in two Audioboo podcasts, which are worth listening to: “Comments on the Way Home” and  “Irish Abroad Will Have Their Say

    Labour: The Labour Party’s Ciaran Lynch told the Irish Independent that his party would extend the franchise in local, general and presidential elections to emigrants for up to five years after departure. The mechanism would be through a postal vote. He told the paper:

    “People who have been forced to leave this country in search of work are justifiably angry and should not be denied the chance to vote on how their country is run. Currently, the only people entitled to an absentee vote are civil servants and military personnel who are working out of the country. We want this to be extended to all emigrants, at least during their first five years out of the country.”

    Green Party: Green Party candidate Ciarán Cuffe has said that those leaving Ireland should retain their right to vote in national and local elections and referenda for up to five years. I am awaiting confirmation on whether this is going to be an official part of their party platform, but this is from a party press release:

    Deputy Cuffe said: “Many people leaving Ireland today do not intend it to be a long-term or permanent move. For some people emigration is necessary to find employment during the economic downturn. For others it is a lifestyle choice. However, many share a common desire to return home again once economic and employment conditions improve. I believe that all Irish citizens who have contributed so much to the State and wish to have a genuine stake in its future political direction of the country should not automatically lose to their right to vote once they leave the country.

    “Under Irish law if you are living abroad you cannot be entered into the register of electors with some exceptions for Irish diplomats, members of the defence and police forces who can apply for a postal vote. More than 110 countries allow passport holders who live abroad the right to vote, however Ireland is not one of them.?

    Deputy Cuffe said: “Ireland should look at French, Dutch and British examples of where the diaspora living overseas are afforded the right to vote electronically, or by mail or at a local embassy or consulate. If it can be done effectively in other countries we can do it here.?

    Sinn Féin: Sinn Féin leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has been an outspoken advocate of the right to vote. According to a November report in the Irish Post,

    Sinn Féin is calling for the extension of voting rights for all Irish citizens, including emigrants, for Dáil, Assembly and Presidential elections and also support extension of the vote to emigrant Northern citizens in Westminster elections, and voting rights for all emigrant Irish citizens to a future reformed and directly-elected Séanad.

    Ó Caoláin further added at the time:

    “This issue has been a bone of contention for many years, with successive governments in Dublin refusing to extend to the Diaspora the same rights which almost every other European country gives their emigrés, to have a say in the democratic process at home. This denial for Irish people stands in stark contrast to the more than 115 countries world wide which has some such arrangements in place.?

    So there we have it: it looks like every party is committing to offering some form of voting rights to at least some emigrants. Sure we’ll have to get the parties to stick to their promises, but it definitely looks like we’re moving toward acceptance of emigrant voting as the emerging democratic norm that it is.

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