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  • Denial of MEP votes makes global Irish lesser EU citizens

    Friday, May 28th, 2010

    The European Voice Newspaper published a letter I sent in regarding one of the effects of Ireland’s policy of disenfranchising its emigrants. In it I argued that Ireland’s denial of emigrant voting rights effectively leaves Irish citizens disadvantaged as European citizens of a lesser status.

    The letter is on the website as well as in the newspaper. It’s behind a paywall (though it will be available next week for registered users), so here is the text as I submitted it to the paper:

    Your article, “The muzzled British diaspora in the EU” (discussed in this article), highlights the plight of British expats who cannot vote after fifteen years abroad. Irish citizens have it even worse: we lose all rights to vote as soon as we move abroad.

    The situation also means that there are two tiers of European citizenship: most citizens of EU member states are entitled to elect MEPs no matter where in the world they live. Irish citizens, however, lose their rights to representation at EU level if they move to a non-EU country. Surely there should be some way to ensure equality of European representation for European citizens?

    It’s my understanding that the EU takes no interest in the expat voting policies of individual nations.  It seems to me that when you have a parliamentary body representing citizens of an entity such as the EU, however, there should be equal access among citizens of that entity to representation as a matter of fairness. I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a larger issue in the years to come, particularly set against the current global context of increasing diaspora engagement and the rising number of nations allowing their emigrants to vote.

    I’ll be talking more about these issues next month,  as one of the keynote speakers at the Europeans Throughout the World conference in Bratislava.

    See the letter on

    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.