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    Constitutional Convention’s survey on emigrant voting rights disappoints

    By Noreen Bowden | September 26, 2013

    The Constitutional Convention has conducted a survey to accompany this weekend’s discussion on whether there should be voting rights for emigrants in presidential elections. At first I welcomed this outreach and the opportunity it provided  to gauge the opinion of the Irish abroad on this topic.

    Unfortunately however, my enthusiasm was replaced by extreme unease when I opened the survey – because rather than straightforwardly presenting matter-of-fact options about which forms of political participation might be favoured (if any) by respondents, it instead served up a strange mix of assumption and stereotype that seemed to have been rooted in some less than flattering attitudes about Irish citizens abroad. Many of the questions had  only tenuous links to the question of voting right for overseas citizens.

    Respondents were asked to assess, for example, whether emigrants were likely to have “an unrealistic or distorted picture of Ireland”, whether non-taxpayers should ‘dictate’ how much tax others should pay, whether one’s primary loyalty is to Ireland or another country. Several of these questions appear to take on board assumptions frequently made by those opposed to voting rights for overseas citizens.

    I was not the only one who found the survey wording alienating. I saw negative responses on Facebook and Twitter, as well as in personal conversations with people who had taken the survey. I got together with two others who have taken an interest in emigrant voting rights to compile the response I have pasted in below. I have submitted the document to the Constitutional Convention on their website as my third submission to the Convention.

    Additionally, the Irish Echo in Australia has also submitted an editorial to the Constitutional Convention’s website outlining many of the same problems with the survey.

    To their credit, the organisers of the Constitutional Convention have not really tried to defend the survey, and the Convention’s Secretary, Art O’Leary, invited us to respond with our criticisms as soon as he picked up on the rumble of discontent on Twitter.  Speaking at an event I attended at the London School of Economics earlier this month, he acknowledged the wording of the survey was “appalling”.

    Here is the text of the submission:

    The Constitutional Convention survey: a response

    The survey on emigrant voting conducted by the Constitutional Convention was perhaps not the best way to achieve an unbiased sampling of public opinion on emigrant voting.

    One of the problematic aspects of the survey is that several of the questions seem to build in assumptions commonly used by those who oppose emigrant voting, but which are not based in fact (questions 8, 10, 11). Several of the questions have questionable relevance to the issue of emigrant voting (questions 8, 11, 13, 14). Additionally, responses to several of the questions can be interpreted in multiple or even contradictory ways (questions 7, 8, 10, 14).

    To take each one (using the numbers that correspond to the survey question): (Questions 1 through 6 were questions aimed at classifying respondents, not gathering opinions.)

    7. The right to vote should depend on citizenship not residence

    These options are not mutually exclusive:

    • A person could believe, for example, that both non-resident citizens and non-citizen residents should be allowed to vote.
    • A respondent could also believe that the right to vote should be dependent on both citizenship and residence, and that only resident citizens should be allowed to vote.

    A respondent who disagrees, therefore, could believe any of the following:

    • the right to vote should be limited to residents
    • the right to vote should be extended to all citizens and all residents
    • the right to vote should be limited to only resident citizens.

    8. If people are not paying for services through taxation they should not have a right to dictate the extent to which those who do should pay.

    a) For this question to have any relevance to the emigrant voting issue, it would seem to require an assumption that emigrants do not pay taxes. This is, in fact, an assumption often made by opponents of emigrant voting – and it is false. Some emigrants do pay taxes: for example, all emigrants who own a home in Ireland (whether they acquired it through purchase or inheritance) are required to pay both the local household tax and the non-primary residence tax.

    Additionally, some residents are net beneficiaries of taxation. (There are movements in other countries that call for the disenfranchisement of all net beneficiaries of taxation, such as welfare recipients, politicians and civil servants. It is easy to see how undemocratic this concept is when the statement is recontextualised in this way.)

    b) The use of the words “to dictate” is contradictory to the spirit of the democratic process. Voters decide, they do not dictate. This word choice is a poor way to accurately determine attitudes – it is hard for someone who believes in the democratic process to accept that it would be appropriate for any group of people to ‘dictate’ the obligations of others.

    c) Voting and citizenship are about many more issues than taxation.

    One could thus strongly agree with this statement and still be in favor of emigrant voting rights. Affirmative respondents could mean, for example:

    • Non-taxpayers should have no vote.
    • All taxpayers should get the vote.
    • Taxation decisions should not be made by non-tax-paying dictators
    • Net beneficiaries of taxation should not have the authority to levy tax on taxpayers, including emigrants.

    9. Emigrants should be allowed to vote in the elections for the office of the President.

    This question seems appropriately neutral.

    10. The votes of emigrant citizens should be taken into consideration but not outweigh those of resident Irish citizens.

    The meaning of this is unclear. How would votes “be taken into consideration”? What does “outweigh” mean in this sense? Does it mean to “outnumber”? (As the DFA estimates there are roughly 3,000,000 Irish passport-holding-citizens abroad, as compared to 4.5 million resident in the republic, and international experience would predict a smaller turnout among emigrant voters, it would be hard to conceive of a situation where non-resident citizen voters would outnumber those of resident Irish citizens.) Is there some other way in which non-resident votes could outweigh the votes of residents?

    Those disagreeing with it may mean:

    • the votes of emigrant citizens should not be taken into consideration, or
    • the outweighing of resident Irish citizens should not be a factor

    11. Many emigrants have an unrealistic or distorted picture of Ireland

    Who is the arbiter for determining realistic, undistorted pictures of Ireland? Would, for example, a single parent living in the midlands earning the average industrial wage, a Dublin bank executive earning 250,000 a year, and an unemployed young person in Donegal all have the same image of Ireland? Should anyone’s right to vote be granted only if they are in accord with a common image of Ireland that can be agreed by all (or the majority) of its resident citizens?

    Additionally, what is to be gleaned from the question of whether emigrant citizens feel that many others have a distorted picture of Ireland? This could, for example, be indicative of confidence (or overconfidence) in one’s own ability to perceive Ireland with greater clarity than others. Or an emigrant who feels angry and disaffected may feel that others maintain too positive a view of Ireland, while an emigrant who is naturally optimistic may feel that others are unnecessarily pessimistic. It could also be indicative of a generation gap, whereby a young person with little experience of older generations of emigrants may be under the impression that older emigrants’ views must be distorted and inaccurate.

    This question is particularly problematic because it appears to feed into a commonly expressed, stereotypical view of Irish emigrants. The response is as likely to reveal the extent to which respondents are influenced by this stereotype, as whether emigrants actually have “an unrealistic or distorted picture of Ireland”.

    12. Emigrants should not be allowed to vote on basic principles of the state as set out in the Constitution, i.e. the right should be extended to referendums on the Constitution.

    The original version of this question question contained a typo – the word “not” appears to be extraneous in the first clause (or is missing from the second).

    13. As a resident of ___ I feel my primary loyalty is to that country.

    The question of primary loyalty regarding emigrant voting rights is not a clear-cut one. Like many other countries, Ireland allows dual citizenship. It does not, therefore, require that emigrants choose between loyalty to their home and their host countries, and, in fact, the loyalty of the Irish abroad is a feature commonly praised by politicians in describing the relationship between Ireland and its overseas citizens.

    Additionally, even those emigrants who do feel a ‘primary loyalty’ to their new countries will still be affected by Irish laws: for example, an Australian-based emigrant who owns a home in Ireland will still need to pay his or her household tax, even if he or she declares a primary loyalty to Australia. The reverse is also true: maintaining one’s primary loyalty to Ireland will not protect an emigrant from, for example, being subject to the habitual residence condition if he or she wants to return home.

    The concept of ‘primary loyalty’ is one, therefore, that does not reflect actual obligation, on the part of either the emigrant or the nation: the transfer of one’s loyalty will not grant an emigrant voting rights in another country – unless it is also accompanied by taking up citizenship, a process which in most cases will take several years. Even then, taking up a second citizenship will not absolve an emigrant of any responsibilities in Ireland. Meanwhile, Ireland offers no reward to any emigrant who would refuse to adopt dual citizenship and retain Ireland as one’s sole citizenship.

    14. I value my membership of an Irish community where I live.

    This is a useful question for a survey on Irish emigrant attitudes generally, but what does it say about voting?

    Those who disagree may be saying:

    • they do not feel that they have membership of an Irish community where they live
    • that they regard their membership in an Irish community as being of little value
    • there is no Irish community where they live

    It is not evident what agreeing or disagreeing with this statement reveals about whether one might support or oppose the right to vote.

    Noreen Bowden
    Marc Scully
    Lorcan Lyons

    Topics: Latest News | 1 Comment »

    One Response to “Constitutional Convention’s survey on emigrant voting rights disappoints”

    1. What policies affect emigrants? A second submission to the Constitutional Convention | – about Irish emigration and the diaspora Says:
      September 27th, 2013 at 12:45 am

      […] Constitutional Convention’s survey on emigrant voting rights disappoints […]