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I regularly vote in US elections from abroad. Why can’t Irish emigrants do the same?

No matter where in the world I am, I will always be an American. As such, I am grateful that my right to vote there is legally enshrined.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

LAST WEEK, I completed an application for an absentee ballot and sent it back to my town clerk by facsimile so that I can cast a ballot in a local election that will be held in late April. I have done so on countless occasions since I moved to Ireland in 2001. In fact, I have not missed voting in a federal, state or local election in the past 14 years. My voting address remains the house I grew up in, just over the Boston city line in East Milton, Massachusetts.

Exercising this democratic right is something that I take for granted, despite the facts that I live 3,000 miles away and that it is increasingly unlikely that I will return to the US to live anytime in the near future. But no matter where in the world I am, I will always be an American and will always care deeply about the direction of what I still regard as my country, my state and my neighbourhood. As such, I am grateful that my right to vote there is legally enshrined.

The US is far from alone in allowing its emigrants to vote in elections at home. Approximately 120 countries facilitate the participation of their citizens living abroad in elections.

The vast bulk of Irish citizens abroad cannot vote in any elections

Ireland, however, permits only members of the armed service and diplomatic corps stationed globally and their spouses to vote by post. Graduates of the National University of Ireland and of Trinity College Dublin who live outside this jurisdiction are eligible to vote for Seanad Éireann’s two university panels consisting of three Senators each. The vast bulk of Irish citizens abroad cannot vote in any elections.

Irish emigrant groups, such as We’re Coming Back, and individual advocates for the diaspora, like Noreen Bowden, have urged stridently that the Irish Government follow the lead of other countries.

Yet in response to their persuasive arguments and to the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention that Irish citizens everywhere should have a right to vote in presidential elections, the Government has merely noted in a recently launched policy document that this issue is “of enormous importance to many Irish citizens abroad,” that overseas voting would be “challenging to introduce and manage” and that it is first “necessary to analyse the full range of practical and policy issues that would arise in any significant extension of the franchise.”

Why can’t Irish emigrants vote?

This reticence is due, in my view, to three areas of objection that exist within the Government – perhaps particularly in the civil service – and in the wider Irish electorate.

First is the “no representation without taxation” mantra. Some objectors claim that no one should have the right to vote unless they pay taxes here. Upon affirming my support for emigrant votes, I am typically told that my absentee votes in the US are only legitimate because Americans have to pay taxes at home, even if they live and work elsewhere. But although we must file annual returns, only very high earners wind up owing taxes.

And the other countries which allow their emigrants to vote do not require them to pay taxes on foreign income. Also, emigrants do pay property and an array of other taxes here and contribute to the Irish economy on their visits home. Lastly, isn’t one’s national identity more important than her tax liability? If it is not, should some men and women here in Ireland, who the figures and balance sheets might identify as net fiscal “liabilities” to the state, be stripped of their right to vote, too? This is a fundamentally dangerous line of reasoning.

The second relates specifically to Irish America and the 40 million strong diaspora in the US. Opponents of extending the franchise cite the inevitably concomitant administrative difficulties in handling an extraordinary volume of votes, as well as the romanticised notions about the “auld sod” and strong support for Sinn Féin which, they allege, permeate Irish America. In truth, a very small percentage of the 40 million are Irish citizens and an even smaller percentage would make the effort to vote. Their potential impact on electoral outcomes is wildly exaggerated.

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Third, it is frequently stated that, in order to have a vote, one should have to live with the result. Many opine that, by virtue of being away, emigrants do not. Emigrants, however, must deal with the consequences of elections at home in myriad ways. A wide range of laws, especially with respect to taxation, continue to apply to us. And by way of personal experience, being an American abroad after George W Bush was re-elected in 2004 entailed having to hear repeated and withering criticism of American democracy and, yes, of the American people. It was an extremely dispiriting time.

Many have no say in May’s referendum

The outcome of May’s marriage referendum will directly affect a huge number of gay and lesbian people who left Ireland – in a lot of cases because this was not a welcoming place for them – but who would dearly love to get married in the presence of their friends and family back home, in the cities, towns and villages where they come from. Additionally, there are countless emigrants who want the people they now live and work among all over the world to know that Ireland is a different and more tolerant country in 2015. Nonetheless, they cannot vote in May.

I recognise that there is room for debate and discussion about which elections Irish citizens outside of Ireland should be allowed to vote in, whether there should be a time limit on how long one’s right to vote lasts, etc. In consultation with the key stakeholders, reasonable solutions can be reached to the issues that arise in this context. Moreover, I equally acknowledge that a substantial number of emigrants and of those who hold Irish citizenship through ancestry aren’t interested in voting here. That is their right.

But those who closely follow and are invested in what happens in Ireland and would like to have an input should not be denied that opportunity. The status quo, under which they have no say whatsoever, is indefensible. What kind of message does the present wholesale exclusion from the essence of the democratic process send to these Irish abroad? Platitudes to the contrary notwithstanding, when you’re gone, you’re gone.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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