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    Tracking the emigrant voting issue

    Friday, January 29th, 2010

    The issue of votes for Irish emigrants is rising in prominence, as evidenced by the increasing number of articles appearing on the topic. Here’s what’s been said in recent weeks:

    2010: March



    Articles and letters to editor

    Dail mentions:

    Political groups


    European-based web articles

    The articles above seem to imply that Irish-born voters who live and work in Europe can retain their right to vote by returning to Ireland to do so. Of course,  those who are not ordinarily resident in Ireland are ineligible to vote in Ireland, unless they are in the military or the diplomatic corps.

    Should there be diaspora representation in Seanad?

    Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

    Representation for the Diaspora should be included in Seanad Reform, says Irish Times columnist Elaine Byrne.

    Yes, there is a place for a second chamber of democracy in modern Ireland. But not in its current configuration and not with the current reforms on the table. Seanad representation must be extended to third-level graduates from all our educational institutions, the almost 500,000 unemployed, the diaspora, our ethnic and religious minorities and our Northern neighbours.

    Emigrant representation in the Seanad has been proposed before, of course – the most relevant recent document covering the matter was 2004 Report on Seanad reform, which agreed “in principle that emigrants, and indeed immigrants, should have a voice in Seanad Eireann”. It suggested that the emigrant voting posed “major logistical and administrative problems”. Instead, it said,

    “The Subcommittee is therefore of the view that the Taoiseach, when selecting his nominees for the Seanad, should include people who can represent the interests and perspectives of both emigrants and immigrants.”

    It will be interesting to see if calls for emigrant political participation – elected or appointed – increase as the number of emigrants rise and Irish engagement with the diaspora continues to strengthen. Ireland is unusual in giving its emigrants no opportunity to participate in the political process; there are over 150 countries and territories that give their emigrants some form of elected political representation.

    Related webpages:

    Proposals on European emigrants passed at Paris meeting

    Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

    “Europe on the Move: the first meeting of Europeans resident outside their country of origin” was hosted by the Assembly of French Expatriates at the French Foreign Ministry in Paris on 30 September. Ean attended the meeting, along with a number of fellow members of the Europeans Throughout the World, and delegates from 24 of the 27 EU nations. Besides Ean Director Noreen Bowden, other Irish attendees included an official from the Irish consulate in Paris and Pat Cox, the former president of the European Parliament. There were approximately 175 participants in total.

    The event was aimed at bringing together emigrant Europeans to work toward a European policy for those Europeans living outside their country of origin. Two roundtable discussions focused on “Better apprehending the Europe of Justice and European Administration” and “Giving European citizens better protection”. The event was addressed by several high-ranking French officials, including Bernard Kouchner, the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs; and Xavier Bertrand, the Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Solidarity.

    The day of lively discussion resulted in a declaration that included the following proposals:

    1. Universal justice for all Europeans
    2. A European diplomatic and consular network
    3. A “European referent” in national public services
    4. A web portal “”
    5. A European civilian and military rapid intervention force (to protect expats in the event of natural disaster or civil or military conflict).
    6. Harmonised access to healthcare for all Europeans
    7. European education with a universal dimension
    8. European recognition of individual retirement entitlements
    9. Entitlement to vote in European elections
    10. Political recognition in European institutions for Europeans resident outside their country of origin

    The declaration was passed by consensus. Organisers pledged that this would be the first of many such meetings to be held at least annually and hosted as part of the EU presidency. These meetings will bring together representatives of member states to evaluate policy affecting Europeans residing outside their country of origin.

    See the entire text of the Paris Declaration.

    Visit the English translation of the conference information on the website for Assemblée des Français de l’étranger.

    Postal vote for overseas travellers, suggests report

    Thursday, April 24th, 2008

    Postal voting should be enhanced to accommodate those who are temporarily out of the country at election time, says an Oireachtas committee report on electoral procedures.

    The report, “The Future of the Electoral Register in Ireland and Related Matters”, was published yesterday. Produced by the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, it is aimed at reforming the electoral register. It suggests the need for a single national commission to take over the electoral register from the 34 local authorities currently managing it. It also calls for the use of a PPS number instead of the current system, which is based on household address, as a way of eliminating duplicate registrations, fraud, and confusion over where individuals are registered.

    On the issue of voting from outside the country, the report says

    Improved measures should be introduced to facilitate people who are out of the country (holidays, work, etc) or where people are sick and cannot physically attend the polling station. Such new enhancements would need to take account of security and anti-fraud measures.

    The report calls for legislation to be drafted to “[e]stablish a more comprehensive postal voting for system for people who cannot attend polling stations”.

    Currently, the postal vote is reserved for members of the Defence Forces, the Garda Siochana, and Irish diplomats posted overseas, and their spouses. Sick and disabled people who cannot get to the polling station, and students studying away from home may also vote by post.

    Why is this of interest to emigrants? Because the development of a postal vote that can be used by overseas travellers may normalise the phenomenon of voting from abroad, while establishing the infrastructure that may at some time in the future be used to allow emigrants to vote.

    So it’s a step that would be of interest to those who would support emigrant voting rights, although there is no movement yet toward widening out the franchise beyond those who are ordinarily resident in the state.

    See the full report on the Oireachtas website.

    Holiday-makers and business travellers may get absentee ballots

    Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

    The Irish times is reporting that An Oireachtas committee will propose that people abroad on holidays or business at election time should be allowed to vote.

    The report says the recommendation will be proposed as part of a series of suggested changes to the electoral register to be proposed by the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Committee. It will also recommend that a National Electoral Office should be established to take responsibility for an accurate voting register away from local authorities.

    The report of the committee will be released on 16 April.  It will then be up to the Minister for the Environment to make a decision on the next steps.

    Currently, Ireland does not allow for any form of voting from outside the country, apart from for those involved in diplomatic service. About 115 countries now allow voting from abroad, with most of those nations allowing their emigrants to vote.

    See Ean’s factsheet on external voting.
    See the report in the Irish Times (subscription required).

    Voting rights article featured on

    Monday, February 11th, 2008 is carrying an article from Ean on its website, on the issue of emigrant voting rights. The article notes that many immigrant groups are now able to vote in their home countries from Ireland, a fact that is reported positively in the Irish media. It contains an overview of the diverse ways in which the over 100 nations that allow emigrant voting have managed the issue, and discusses the effect of the likely move toward Seanad reform on the number of Irish people who will have some say from abroad.

    Here is the text of the article.

    Expat voting, global style

    By Noreen Bowden

    There was intense media interest in Ireland this week over the Super Tuesday vote in the US. The excitement was evident in the amount of media coverage afforded those Irish residents who cast their ballots as part of the Democrats Abroad primary election. More than 250 American citizens showed up to vote in Dublin at O’Neill’s pub, as for the first time ever the Democratic party was sending delegates from abroad to the convention. In essence, we were being treated as the “fifty-first state”.

    As someone who was delighted to join the pub crowd in casting my ballot on Tuesday, I noted the fact that there was no negative commentary from Irish observers about the fact that we were exercising our rights to an emigrant vote – a topic which has been highly controversial in Ireland. In asking a few of the journalists and students who had come to observe the situation, most of them conceded they hadn’t made the connection between Americans voting from Ireland and the fact that Irish people don’t similarly get to vote once they have left the country. We in Ireland have come to accept it as a matter of course that immigrants here have a say in their home elections – in recent months, it’s not just the Americans who have been voting, but also the Poles and the French. The votes of all three have been widely covered by the Irish media – and I have yet to see any critical coverage or suggestion that these emigrant voters were in any way damaging to their home nations.

    Currently, there are around 115 countries and territories – including nearly all developed nations – that have systems in place to allow their emigrants to vote. And the number is growing. Even countries with very high rates of emigration, such as Italy, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico have recently allowed their expats to vote.

    Ireland is in a highly unusual situation in our increasingly globalised world, in not allowing the majority of its overseas citizens any say in the political process. Members of the armed forces and the diplomatic services are able to vote in Dail elections, while only NUI and Trinity graduates can vote in the Seanad. There is no law to prevent emigrants from voting; there is simply no law to facilitate it.

    Many people within Ireland are at first leery of allowing emigrants to vote, pointing out that, with such a high number of emigrants abroad, Ireland would be overwhelmed. Others point to Ireland’s system of proportional representation, and suggest that elections in close constituencies could be held up waiting for a box of votes to arrive from Boston or Berlin.

    Still others, in an odd inversion of the eighteenth century’s American Revolutionary rallying cry for democracy, proclaim, “No representation without taxation” – an argument seriously undermined by the fact that no other nation seems to link expat voting with expat taxation. In fact, the US(which does not explicitly link the two) is the only developed nation that requires its citizens abroad to pay taxes on money earned abroad, and even then the only people affected are those making over $85,000.

    Some suggest that Irish people abroad quickly lose touch with the country, and can’t stay informed enough to vote responsibly. This argument will no doubt seem nonsensical to anyone who has been reading the Irish Emigrant for any part of the last twenty-one years. Plus, we don’t require voters within the country to pass a current events test, so how do we know that our voters at home have been brushing up on the issues?

    The fact is that there is a wide variety of solutions for the emigrant voting conundrum, and every country has dealt with the issue in a different way. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. While a 2006 study found that 65 countries allowed external voting for all, 26 countries placed restrictions on which of their expats could vote, making the right conditional on the length of time they have been away, their intent to return, or their location. A few countries disqualify citizens from voting after a certain period of time – the UK allows expats to vote only for the first 15 years away, for example.

    Some nations restrict voting to only certain types of elections – the most commonly allowed voting is for national and presidential elections. It is less common to allow emigrants to cast their ballots in local and regional elections, or for referendums.

    Most nations require that their emigrants vote in the last constituency where they lived, while others vote for specific emigrant representatives. Nine countries, including France, Italy and Portugal, reserve seats in their parliaments for those abroad.

    The forms of voting are also diverse – some require voters to do so in person, at either consulates or embassies or by returning home to cast the ballot; others allow voting by mail or fax, a handful by proxy, and some by a combination of the above methods.

    It may be time for Ireland to begin examining the diversity of compromises and solutions that other nations have arrived at. Ironically, the fact that emigrant numbers are declining may make the idea of an emigrant vote more possible, as voters at home will be less threatened by a smaller number of emigrants, and as the nature of emigration becomes increasingly more of a temporary phenomenon. These decreased numbers will be one of a number of factors eroding the level of opposition to emigrant voting.

    In addition, the prospect of Seanad Reform is in view again, and the most likely outcome appears to be the extension of the right to vote by all third-level graduates, not just Trinity and NUI graduates. Presumably, reformers will continue to allow those third-level graduate Seanad voters to vote whether they are at home or abroad. This will greatly increase the number of emigrants who can vote – but the long-term effect may be even greater. Authorities will have to come up with a national system that will allow them to register voters from abroad, and to decide on how an overseas election will work. In doing so they will be setting up the structures that could pave the way for more widespread emigrant voting in the future.

    Noreen Bowden is a New Yorker who lives in Ireland and is the Director of Ean, the Emigrant Advice Network. Do you have an opinion about whether you should be able to vote from abroad? Let Ean know, by writing to Noreen Bowden at

    For more information on Ean, visit

    Published on Irish, February 2008.

    See Ean’s factsheet on emigrant voting rights.

    Have an opinion on the matter? Drop a line to Noreen at, or use the comment feature below.

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