The Constitutional Convention: Non-Resident Voting

The Constitutional Convention is back, after a fairly lengthy absence. It has a slightly fuller schedule for the reminder of its existence though, and the next thing up on the agenda is an important one.

Non-Resident Voting

Simply put, this is the idea that Irish citizens living abroad, as well as the citizens of Northern Ireland, should be represented within the Oireachtas, whether it is with actual TDs, Senators, or with a vote for the President.

I dislike this idea.

I always have, ever since I first heard it and I hope nothing like it is ever made part of our electoral system. I have no problem admitting that it comes from a well-intentioned place. But that does not change the innate problems with it.

The classic phrase for this sort of thing is “no representation without taxation”. That’s a valid point to an extent. While we generally see the franchise as an inherent right, it’s never that simple, and it never has been anywhere in history, be it America in 1776 or be in Ireland in 2013.

If you pay your taxes, you get the right to vote. That’s an extraordinarily simple way to look at things, too simple, but I suppose it could be better viewed as “Contribute towards the state, and you get to vote.” There are plenty of unemployed people out there, especially right now, who don’t pay taxes. But of course, the vast majority of them have at some stage, and are actively trying to get back into a position where they do. Criticising someone’s right to vote because they haven’t a job is heinous.

I’m sure you’ll find that overstated minority of naer do wells that don’t have work and don’t seem inclined to find it, that so many right-wing callers to Joe Duffy like to blather on about, but that kind of person probably wouldn’t be able to muster the energy to vote if they can’t find the energy to work.

I have time for the representation/taxation thing on that basis, and those living abroad won’t be contributing to the state in that fashion. But it’s really a secondary objection for me.

No, the real one is simply one of residence and effect. Basically put, I don’t believe that someone living in Melbourne or New York or wherever, should have the right to vote for legislators who will have no effect on their lives, but will have on mine. The idea that a massive overseas constituency (and it would be massive) could have such a bearing on the direction and legislative future of the country seems incredibly illogical to me, when they won’t ever have to live with the decision directly. I will, but my voice might be drowned out by those who have a new political system to live under. I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think its fair, to me, or the others who will have to live under a government partially elected by people who will never deal with the consequences.

Oh, and the north. Our nations ingrained attachment to that section of the island, one we really should have gotten over around 15 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement, continues to be dearly held. Votes for the north? For all the same reasons above, no. The north is its own country, with its own elected legislature, and any one of its citizens could, if they so choose, became one of this countries citizens. That’s their choice, but that doesn’t mean we should just extend the franchise to every single person over 18 in a foreign country.

Because that is what Northern Ireland is. Forget your shared language, culture, religion. It’s a foreign country. Its citizens should not get to vote for our legislature because of a misguided attachment.

And there is that niggling rejection of reciprocity. I often hear well intentioned people insisting that the franchise should be extended over the border, but I have never heard someone suggest that I should have a vote for Stormont. It would be ridiculous wouldn’t it? So why is it OK the other way around?

When I get the vote for Stormont, I’ll throw my hands up and say we should give the vote to the north here. Not before then.

I could list off the myriad of problems in actually implementing this idea. I’ve noticed that so many advocates seem to just fire and forget when talking about idea, offering no thoughts on how the Diaspora would vote.

Who gets the franchise exactly? How long do you have to be out of the country? What if that changes? Do kids born abroad get the vote? Are we splitting the planet into constituencies? Is it going to be PR-STV or a list based system for ease (but which will favour parties)? Can we do that without altering the rest of our electoral system? Isn’t there a possibility that individual emigrant votes might be worth less than others because of the numbers involved? Are we copying the French Senate system, with an electoral college? Isn’t that undemocratic? Can we justify a system where some representatives are elected directly and others aren’t? Who counts the votes? Where are they counted? How many seats are you willing to give to this? How will by-elections work? What if you’re convicted of a felony abroad?

I mean, those are all problems, but problems can be overcome. I’m just listing them more to point out that those problems exist, and anyone advocating non-resident voting should have answers to them.

Others propose a more limited idea, wherein non-residents are given the franchise only for specific portions of the Irish political system, like the Presidency or referendums on the constitution. While this is limiting, it still has all the same problems as listed above: Our President is a figurehead, but still has some powers, and I don’t want people voting for him/her when they’ll never be forced to live with a decision to pardon, dismissing the Dail or anything else. The same applies to referenda.

And, I also have a basic sense of democratic equality: If you’re giving the franchise out, I think you have to give it out equally, a system we already don’t follow in the case of the Seanad. I’d rather not make it worse.

What this all comes down to is the reactionary element. No one discussed foreign franchising five years ago, but here we are now, in another age of emigration. People are bitter about that, and are seeking a redress. Constitutional amendment should not be borne from such sentiments. It’s the same reasoning behind the (thankfully rejected) Oireachtas Committees idea and the (approved, without enough debate) Judges Pay referendum last year.

Like all bad suggested amendments, this one is a short term reaction to current circumstances, designed as a tool to punish the current government parties by increasing the electorate, to a large degree, with people who are bound to vote against that government. I dislike that sentiment, or perhaps more the way that people hide it under a veil of reasoned debate.

The suggestion for non-resident voting, while coming from a well intentioned place in a lot of respects, is short-sighted, under thought in terms of its difficulty to implement, and ultimately an illogical way to treat the franchise in Ireland. There are always requirements on voting and democracy, regardless of what we actually say on that score. Residence, taxation (and intent to be eligible for tax) and citizenship are those requirements. That should not change.

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