Voting from abroad
October 31, 2020 1:25 PM   Subscribe

What's the reasoning behind countries allowing and encouraging expat voting? Wouldn't people who have left their countries for N number of years be disconnected from the day-to-day reality?

I'm not against it, especially because around here most of the expat vote skews left, but "they vote for things I like" is not a defensible argument in my head. I'm also hoping the answer is more than "they are citizens and therefore they are allowed to vote."
posted by simmering octagon to Law & Government (25 answers total)
They would and Germany won’t allow you to vote if you‘ve been out of the country for more than 20 years for that reason.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:32 PM on October 31, 2020

The US makes expats report all their foreign financial financial information, file taxes, and even pay income tax over a certain amount, so I can imagine a lot of objection if they stopped allowing expats to vote.

(That said, afaik expats can vote only in federal elections, which includes Senators and Congressional representatives from the last state they lived in, but not any other elections in that state. I don't know if that varies on a state-by-state basis, though, or what the official arguments are for allowing and disallowing certain types of voting.)
posted by trig at 1:36 PM on October 31, 2020 [10 favorites]

As an American expat with no plans on ever moving back, I would argue that we simply might move back one day. Voting allows us to have an impact on what our country will be like if we do move back, and keeps us engaged as citizens.

I do often feel disconnected from the US (and sometimes feel this acutely when I visit) but we are all probably disconnected from the every day realities of our fellow citizens in many ways.
posted by Blissful at 1:57 PM on October 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

For the US you would be excluding military personnel by not letting people living abroad to vote. Also, the US demands taxes on all income fitting their criteria so I get to pay taxes on on income for two countries or more depending on circumstances. Further, I sure don't feel disconnected from the US with communication between friends and family, modern media outlets and international coverage of the US. If anything, living abroad has shown me the intense interest and influence of the US.
posted by jadepearl at 2:01 PM on October 31, 2020 [13 favorites]

Wouldn't people who have left their countries for N number of years be disconnected from the day-to-day reality?

Well, there's no requirement that you be connected to reality to vote.

That sounds like a joke but, honestly, the history of preventing otherwise eligible people from voting because "they aren't knowledgeable enough so they shouldn't be allowed to" is never, ever actually used to make voting more fair and representative. See "literacy tests" in the Jim Crow South, etc.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:17 PM on October 31, 2020 [30 favorites]

For countries with significant diasporas, it's a way to keep people thinking about the homeland and not rule out returning (and of course keep sending money to family at home). That's a big factor in Poland letting all citizens vote, for example - we have 38 million citizens in the country, but around 20 million more people living abroad but identifying with Polish culture.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 2:18 PM on October 31, 2020 [6 favorites]

A lot of expats don't leave because of preferences or ideology - they do so because their jobs send them abroad, whether it's because they work for a multinational company, for an NGO, or in various government roles. Lawmakers don't generally want to discourage this by penalizing it with loss of rights.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:47 PM on October 31, 2020 [10 favorites]

"they vote for things I like" is not a defensible argument in my head. I'm also hoping the answer is more than "they are citizens and therefore they are allowed to vote."

Conversely, if you're going to take away someone's rights, you should have a compelling reason to do so. Many people in the US proper aren't terribly connected with things either.
posted by Candleman at 3:38 PM on October 31, 2020 [7 favorites]

Ireland doesn't allow people not normally resident in the state to vote in most of the elections, unless you are an Irish official abroad, like at an embassy. There's about a 12-18 month grace period before you should be dropped from the register though.

There are too many Irish citizens abroad compared to within Ireland to open it to everyone - you'd probably end up with a lot of elections being decided by Americans who have never lived in the country. Even restricting it to people who were on the register in the last 10-20 years would still mean quite a high proportion deciding on issues that don't directly impact them. Very local issues can have a big impact on the Dáil elections (lower house).

Seanad (senate) elections are the one exception. The selection process is a bit complicated, but 6 of them are voted in by the (Irish citizen) graduates of particular Irish universities. You don't have to be resident in the country to vote in the Seanad elections.
posted by scorbet at 3:47 PM on October 31, 2020

This depends on the country; they don't all have the same rules.

As a Polish citizen I have the right to vote in Polish elections despite living abroad for much longer than I ever lived inside the country. I make full use of this right and I think it's reasonable for me to have it -- apart from having a vested interest in the fate of a country I have the legal right to live in, I care about what happens to my relatives, who live there right now. I may not understand every subtle nuance of regional politics, but (regrettably) every election I've ever voted in has come down to a binary tactical decision along very unsubtle lines.

I think we can all think of examples of people who are completely detached from the day-to-day reality of the country that they do in fact live in, but who are not disqualified from voting there. As others have observed, requiring people to meet some standard of education, intelligence or general knowledge before being allowed to vote is a nice idea in theory, but in practice goes nowhere good very quickly.
posted by confluency at 4:19 PM on October 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

For the US you would be excluding military personnel by not letting people living abroad to vote.

You'd also be excluding diplomats and other USG personnel overseas, all of whom have to keep paying full federal and state taxes as though they were back in the US.

Not to mention corporate expats, students, and others overseas for a year or two for whatever reason (family, travel, etc). As mentioned previously, the US is also one of the few countries that expects citizens to file/pay taxes if you live overseas, even if you work for a foreign employer and pay foreign taxes (although there is a foreign-earned income exclusion up to a certain amount). Given that, it's only fair that you can still vote as well.
posted by photo guy at 5:12 PM on October 31, 2020

The Supreme Court of Canada considered this issue last year. Expats argued against a law that said they couldn't vote once they'd been out of the country for five years, saying this was a contravention of their constitutional right to vote.

The Court agreed with the expats. Some excerpts from the Court's official summary:
Since voting is a fundamental political right, and the right to vote is a core tenet of Canadian democracy, any limit on the right to vote must be carefully scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification.

[T]he voting restrictions in question advance the objective of maintaining the fairness of the electoral system to resident Canadians. This is a sufficiently important legislative objective...

Here, there is no evidence of the harm that these voting restrictions are meant to address. No complaint has been identified with respect to voting by non-residents, and no evidence has been presented to show how voting by non-residents might compromise the fairness of the electoral system.

There is little to justify the choice of five years as a threshold or to show how it is tailored to respond to a specific problem. As well, the five-year limit is overinclusive.... While it seeks to bar people from voting who lack a sufficient connection to Canada, no correlation has been shown between, on the one hand, how long a Canadian citizen has lived abroad and, on the other hand, the extent of his or her subjective commitment to Canada. Many non‑resident citizens maintain deep and abiding connections to Canada through family, online media and visits home, and by contributing taxes and collecting social benefits. Likewise, no correlation has been shown between residence and the extent to which citizens are affected by legislation. Non-resident citizens do live with the consequences of Canadian legislation: they are subject to Canadian legislation during visits home; Canadian laws affect the resident families of non-resident Canadians; some Canadian laws have extraterritorial application; government policies can have global consequences; and Parliament can alter the extent to which Canadian electoral legislation applies to non-resident citizens, which would make the constitutional right to vote subject to shifting policy choices.

In this case, any salutary effects of ensuring electoral fairness are clearly outweighed by the deleterious effects of disenfranchising non-resident Canadians who are abroad for five years or more. The benefits of the impugned legislation are illusory and speculative. It is unclear how the fairness of the electoral system is enhanced when long-term non-resident citizens are denied the right to vote. The deleterious effects on affected non-resident citizens, on the other hand, are serious. Denial of the right to vote, in and of itself, inflicts harm on affected citizens; proof of additional harm is not required. The disenfranchisement of long-term non-resident citizens not only denies them a fundamental democratic right, but also comes at the expense of their self-worth and their dignity.
Of the seven judges who participated, two dissented. From the summary of the dissent:
Parliament sought to privilege a relationship of some currency between electors and their communities. This objective is sufficiently pressing and substantial to survive scrutiny... Parliament was quite properly striving to shape the boundaries of the right by enacting legislation governing the terms on which elections are conducted, by drawing a line at citizens who have a current relationship to the community in which they seek to cast a ballot.

Residence has been described as a fundamental requirement of the right to vote. While citizenship is a necessary requirement to vote, it is therefore not the only constitutionally permissible limit. Citizenship is a status. It does not itself indicate a relationship of any currency to a particular Canadian community. Parliament, not unreasonably, deemed residence or recent residence to be indicative of this relationship... Preserving a relationship of currency between electors and their communities by limiting long‑term non-resident voting ensures reciprocity between exercising the right to vote and bearing the burden of Canadian laws... It is unfair to Canadian residents for their lawmakers to be elected by long-term non-residents who have no connection of any currency to their electoral district. Preserving the relationship between electors and their communities through limits on long-term non-resident voting also protects the integrity of the Canadian electoral system, which is founded on geographical representation.

Five years corresponds to the maximum length of a Parliament, thereby ensuring that all non-residents can vote in at least one election after leaving Canada, and it is sufficiently long to permit students who travel abroad to study to complete their programs without foregoing the ability to vote.

The deleterious effect of denying some citizens the right to vote is not insubstantial, but it is tempered by the fact that the restriction is reversible rather than permanent, as any adult Canadian citizen can still exercise the right to vote at any point, provided that he or she re‑establishes residence in Canada. Thus, the restriction at issue is not a permanent denial of the right to vote. Just like the age requirement, it represents a distinction based on the experiential situation of all citizens in that category; it is not a distinction based on moral worth.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 5:46 PM on October 31, 2020 [5 favorites]

I am a citizen of a country where I cannot vote because I live overseas. That doesn't mean that I'm not affected by the politics there, nor does it mean that the government doesn't make decisions that affect my life. My brother is in the middle of trying to renew his passport and, lo and behold, it's turning into a complete mess because they seem to have forgotten that anyone lives overseas, as usual. There was one point where they wanted to insist everyone physically turn up to get a passport. That fell apart because it was unfeasible domestically for people in very rural areas, not because they were going to require some people to travel a thousand miles to get to a consulate.

I note, too, that France actually has overseas citizens vote for a deputy. One representative isn't going to stop the government from screwing people over, but at least there's someone to say "Um... you haven't thought this one through."
posted by hoyland at 6:06 PM on October 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

Speaking personally, I live in a country that could change the laws and boot me out at any moment, since I'm not a citizen. I rely on the fact that the country I am a citizen of is a place I would want to live if I had to go back, and has a consulate service that would help me out while I don't.

It arranges visa agreements with other countries that affect me; part of the reason I can live abroad is because of my country's government. Even the tax and benefits laws affect me to some extent - not much, unless they switch to US rules, but more than not at all for things like pensions and social security retirement benefits.

Now, you might argue that that isn't enough to really justify that I'm allowed to vote (and indeed, up until recently people who had been out of the country too long couldn't vote). That's not unreasonable. If not there, where should I vote? Should I get no say at all in the way the world is run? I think this one is a straight judgement call with no right answer, but it rapidly gets unfair on the person.

One other argument for having a vote at home: the brexit referendum disenfranchised some of the people it affected the most, the ones who had been living in the rest of Europe so long that they weren't allowed to vote in it.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 6:18 PM on October 31, 2020 [5 favorites]

As an American overseas I vote in every election and on the whole gamut of races on my ballot, and donate the most to local- and state-level races. I have an extremely keen interest in making sure the part of America I will most likely move back to resembles a society I want to live in.

I’d also say that no campaign or political party would want to vote in a system that would limit an unusually affluent group of people from participating (and donating) in elections. There are anywhere between 3 and 9 million Americans overseas, so we aren’t talking about a tiny minority of people.

Interestingly, it used to be much harder to vote from overseas until UOCAVA passed in 1986.
posted by mdonley at 6:20 PM on October 31, 2020

I'm also hoping the answer is more than "they are citizens and therefore they are allowed to vote."

But this is a good answer.

Citizens of a democracy get to vote whether they're smart or dumb, whether they're moral or immoral, whether they live in the heart of a city or on a farm a hundred miles from nothing or in an insular religious community where they never see anyone who isn't just like them or in another country.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:53 PM on October 31, 2020 [11 favorites]

As an expat because of work, we would have to move back to the US if layoffs happened because we wouldn't be able to stay residents in the country we are in, and don't have a resident permit for any other countries. That's why we vote from abroad.

Also, having close friends and family in the US means we are connected to the day to day reality. And tax laws, our real estate property in the US, etc, also affect us, so I am glad we can vote!
posted by at 8:02 PM on October 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Voting is a right of citizenship. In some countries, it's a requirement even when abroad.

Also, what happens in the US affects the rest of the world, for better or (more often) for worse. As a US person living in Argentina, this is so extra true. Actually I'm currently stuck back in the US, in part because the US stance on COVID meant we got shut out of many places, unfortunately yet understandably so. I believe with different leadership, we would have better options and be more welcome elsewhere, i.e. I'd be home right now.

Have you ever lived abroad as an ex-pat or an immigrant? I'm going to assume not based on the fact that you asked this. I don't mean my response to be snarky but rather if you were to live abroad as a US person, you'd understand why already. I'm glad you asked though!
posted by smorgasbord at 12:27 AM on November 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was living out of the country four years ago, and I can assure you you can’t escape American politics anywhere. I was in the Masai Mara in Kenya and a Masai warrior said to me, “Can you explain the electoral college to me?”

I’d also say I learned as much about the US living outside of it than I did inside it. I gained a perspective I know I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Having said all that... yeah, remember no taxation without representation?

Also, you vote at your last US address, so you continue to vote in local elections.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:05 AM on November 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

As an Irish ex-pat who lost the right to vote within two years of leaving home, there’s an added level of fucked-upness where I couldn’t vote to change the things stats lead to be living abroad; specifically marriage equality for me, others left because lack of abortion rights and discrimination against unwed mothers. But we couldn’t help vote for change. Not ok.
posted by Iteki at 4:12 AM on November 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

I grew up there. I have nieces and nephews, parents, siblings, friends. Why wouldn’t I care about the country of their and my citizenship? It doesn’t sound like you’ve lived abroad. Otherwise, I doubt you’d airily waive off the 800 lb gorilla in the (global) room. There is nowhere in the world to be “disconnected from the day-to-day reality” of USA policies and trade. Although I left over a dozen years ago, I am required to file and pay taxes on my income and properties. That’s an added cause for remaining engaged in the USA. They take my money, I get a say in how it’s spent.

Why ask about expats? Their lives outside the country are temporary. If you are going to argue that absence means disengagement, I’d have thought you’d ask about immigrants, people who live permanently abroad?

I'm also hoping the answer is more than "they are citizens and therefore they are allowed to vote."

Why? That’s the best answer. What’s wrong with it? This is one of the reasons I chose to keep my USA citizenship.
posted by lemon_icing at 10:56 AM on November 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Please stop answering with variations of how important some of you are because you're American.

I should have been clearer in my question about not being particularly interested in personal anecdotes and/or feelings. In any case, I feel the answers marked as best have given me enough to think about, thanks all.
posted by simmering octagon at 12:42 PM on November 1, 2020

Yes, you should have been clearer in your question. I am not speaking for anyone else, but I answered not because of "how important some of you are because you're American". Rather, it's because voting is important.

Because of you framed voting from abroad question as a thought experiment rather than recognising that within 48 hours the USA presidential election takes place is the reason so many have answered with vigor and personal anecdotes. Had you asked a year from now, the tone and tenor of responses would likely be different. Timing is everything.
posted by lemon_icing at 1:44 PM on November 1, 2020 [9 favorites]

You might look into the arguments that were made for and against allowing British expats to vote in the referendum on Brexit, including the Supreme Court case about it. (ETA: sorry, just noticed that was mentioned above.)
posted by trig at 11:20 AM on November 2, 2020

Perhaps you could post a new variation of your question for people to answer. When I ask a question, I am so grateful to everyone who answers, even if their reply isn't exactly what I asked for (or sometimes totally tangential), because this sense of community and good intentions are exactly why I'm at Metafilter. I'm disappointed that you're chastising us for giving our best answer based upon the rather vague question you had asked. I don't think I'm any more important because I am US American (because, as you know, ALL of us in North and South America are Americans.) But, in addition to general arguments about why to vote -- which others already said so nicely above as you marked, I can only speak to my own personal experience. You could also ask for US citizens to abstain from answering if that's what you want! <3
posted by smorgasbord at 1:38 PM on November 3, 2020

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