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Opinion: Allow emigrants and young people vote for real democracy

Extending voting rights to emigrants and young people aged 16 and 17 would strengthen, expand and enrich our democratic system, writes James Doorley.

James Doorley

THERE HAS BEEN much discussion about the health and strength of democracy across the western world in light of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.

Many voters in the UK and US, depending on their views, may think these outcomes are either a good or bad sign for democracy in their countries. For us here in Ireland, it might be a useful time to reflect on the wellbeing of our own democracy.

There is a danger that, with all its limitations and flaws, we take for granted our democratic system and the right to hire and fire governments. In 1942, in the midst of World War II, Ireland was among half a dozen countries left in Europe (others included the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Iceland) which could be considered democratic. The rest of Europe was under dictatorial rule of one form or another.

Likewise, voting rights have evolved from a time where only men of property were allowed to vote, to the current situation where all citizens resident here aged 18 years and over can cast a ballot in elections and referendums.

What this proves is that our democratic system is less permanent and static than we might imagine. History shows that one of the best ways by which we can strengthen and renew it is by expanding and extending voting rights to a greater numbers of citizens.

120 countries allow citizens abroad to vote – why can’t we?

shutterstock_446643412 Source: Shutterstock/Ms Jane Campbell

Exploring how extending voting to emigrants and young people aged 16 and 17 would enhance, expand and enrich our democratic system in Ireland was the central theme of a seminar on youth political participation organised recently by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI).

In relation to emigrant voting rights, it focused on the practicalities of extending the franchise to Irish citizens abroad, the challenges and the possible approaches that Government could take.

The point was made that Ireland is an outlier by not allowing citizens abroad the right to vote and, in fact, stands in stark contrast to over 120 countries that do allow their citizens abroad to vote in home elections.

While there are legal and logistical challenges to extending voting rights to the Irish abroad (such reform will require a constitutional amendment) similar obstacles have been addressed by many other countries and can be overcome.

The #hometovote phenomenon, which saw hundreds of emigrants return to cast a ballot in the marriage equality referendum last year, demonstrates the strong desire amongst Irish citizens abroad to participate. Many of the voters who travelled home by plane and boat rightly asked why they couldn’t have voted by postal ballot.

The Government needs to move beyond the debates, reports and platitudes about valuing our emigrants and present concrete proposals to deliver on the commitments made to put this issue to the people in a referendum in the lifetime of this Government.

Scotland shows us how extending voting rights works

Our seminar also discussed extending voting rights to young people aged 16 and 17. We heard about the positive impact of the decision by the Scottish Government to give 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in all elections and referenda. They got the vote, and the sky didn’t fall in.

In fact, the representative from the Scottish Youth Parliament, who is 17 herself, detailed how the decision had enhanced the interest and confidence of young people there to engage in political discussions and activities at home, at school and elsewhere; how there was a massive 74% turnout among 16 and 17 year olds in the Scottish Independence referendum and how – despite initial opposition from some quarters – all five main parties there are now in favour of the decision.

In turn, this is leading to pressure to give young people aged 16 and 17 in the rest of the UK the right to vote. Many of the arguments made against giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote are the same as those made against giving women voting rights a hundred years ago.

It is disappointing that in 2015 the Irish Government reneged on its commitment to follow the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention and decided not to hold a referendum on allowing young people aged 16 and 17 the right to vote.

The NYCI will be renewing its efforts to ensure that the estimated 126,000 young people aged 16 and 17 years can vote in the 2019 local and European elections, something which can be achieved through legislation and does not require a referendum.

As has been the case for centuries, one of the best ways to strengthen any democracy is to expand the number of people who have not only a right to vote, but a say and stake in the future.

James Doorley is Deputy Director of the National Youth Council of Ireland.

‘Home to what?’: Emigrants want a say in who runs the show while they’re living abroad>

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James Doorley

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