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    What policies affect emigrants? A second submission to the Constitutional Convention

    By Noreen Bowden | September 26, 2013

    I have written previously about my first submission to the Constitutional Convention, which back in May was looking at the issue of electoral reform. This weekend the Convention will be looking at voting rights for emigrants in Presidential Elections. I have since made two additional submissions, which I’m posting up here for reference as well.

    Here is one of my new submissions, prompted by the common opposition argument that emigrants should have no say because of the (mistaken) assumption that emigrants pay no taxes and are not affected by Irish policies. (My third submission is on the Constitutional Convention’s survey, which also deals with these assumptions to some extent._


    Emigrant voting: Relevant policy issues and taxation

    Many argument by opponents of the right to a vote for emigrants revolve around the areas of taxation and public policy. It is often claimed that the right to vote should be limited to taxpayers (assuming that emigrants are not paying tax), and that emigrants are not affected by political decisions made by politicians. Both of these are problematic assumptions.

    The “taxation without representation” issue

    One common argument against the vote for emigrants is the notion that allowing emigrants the right to vote would be “representation without taxation” – as if “no representation without taxation” were a well-established democratic principle.

    It’s not: there is no democracy in the world that requires the payment of taxes in exchange for a vote. The US is the only developed country in the world that taxes its non-resident citizens on income earned abroad – and yet the US is only one of well over 100 countries around the world that allows its overseas citizens to vote. Even for US expats, there’s no actual link between paying taxes and being allowed to vote: the requirement is that American citizens file taxes; foreign-earned income under a limit of nearly $100,00 is exempt from US taxation. So many, if not most, US expats don’t actually owe any taxes to the US – and yet they all have the right to vote.

    The confusion, of course, seems to arise from the fact that the “No representation without taxation” sounds like “No taxation without representation” – a genuine rallying cry for democracy arising out of the American Revolution, and an explicit call for greater voting rights. “No representation without taxation” is the opposite – it’s a call to restrict democracy; a demand for a return to the pre-Enlightenment era when only men of property could vote. We don’t demand the exchange of taxation for voting rights in any other context: the penniless are as entitled to vote in Ireland as the wealthy, and we don’t exclude net beneficiaries of taxation (such as recipients of social welfare, or politicians and public servants paid out of the public purse) from voting. Modern democratic thinking requires the consideration of voters as citizens, not as taxpayers.

    In fact, Irish emigrants could justifiably adopt the original “No taxation without representation” as their own rallying cry, for an increasing number of them (including every emigrant who owns a home in Ireland) are being taxed in Ireland, without earning any corresponding right to vote.

    Policy issues affecting emigrants

    Another of the more common arguments against emigrant voting is that emigrants are not affected by policy decisions made at home. This argument reflects a lack of awareness of the very real ways in which emigrants are disadvantaged as citizens by having no political outlets. This lack of awareness of the effects of policy decisions on emigrants, of course, partially results from the fact that there is no accountability to overseas citizens in the political systems of those countries that do not allow emigrants to vote.

    With no representatives to speak for them, the interests of overseas citizens remain uncrystallised and unarticulated, and the population of citizens at home has little awareness of and no reason to respond to them. Paradoxically, while opponents of emigrant voting declare that giving emigrants the vote would give overseas citizens the right to make decisions that do not affect them, the effects of political decisions on overseas citizens are almost never discussed.

    The policies that affect emigrants are numerous.  For those who are planning to return, these include:

    • Economic policies – The rates of emigration and return migration tend to correlate with unemployment levels. A well-functioning economy, with relatively low unemployment rates, will be a necessity to enable the large-scale return that many of today’s emigrants are hoping for.
    • Social welfare policies – Emigrants have been adversely affected by the way in which the Habitual Residence Condition has been implemented. Despite pre-implementation assurances that returning emigrants would not be adversely affected by the condition, thousands of emigrants have been prevented from obtaining assistance such as job-seekers’ and carers’ allowances.
    • Education policies – Emigrants are affected by residency policies that determine pricing for third-level education.
    • Spousal immigration legislation – Emigrants are affected by legislation that will affect their ability to return with their spouses or civil partners and families.

    Policies which may affect emigrants whether they plan to return or not:

    • Taxation – Many emigrants who have left recently are homeowners, and are required to pay several forms of tax on homes they own.
    • Emigrant support budget – this budget provides funding for organisations working with Irish communities abroad, particularly the vulnerable and elderly among them.
    • Broadcasting policy – this affects whether emigrants have access to national stations from abroad. This is a particular issue for the Irish in the UK, who have been adversely affected by decisions made in recent years regarding both television and radio broadcasting.
    • Contributory pension levels – Tens of thousands of overseas citizens are entitled to the contributory pension based on payments they made while working in Ireland. They are affected by adjustments in the level of payment and eligibility requirements.
    • Consular protection levels – Overseas citizens will at times require the protection of Ireland in the form of consular services. They may be adversely and disproportionately affected by cutbacks in consular staffing and embassy closure, or otherwise affected by decisions made concerning the level of support given both generally to citizens overseas and in individual cases.
    • Descendent and spousal citizenship – changes have been made to limit the right for overseas citizens to pass on citizenship to descendants or gain citizenship through marriage, and those citizens most affected by this decision have had no say.

    For all of these issues, there is a real risk for overseas citizens that Irish policy makers will make decisions without considering either the interests of those abroad who will be affected or the potential deleterious effects on the lives of Irish citizens abroad.

    Noreen Bowden

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