US & Canada

Is it fair to ban expats from voting?

A Canadian votes Image copyright Getty Images

Canada's election to choose a new government has begun but new rules will restrict the right of expats to vote. Is that fair?

William Affleck-Asch-Lowe moved to the US 22 years ago, but the Canadian expatriate says he never lost touch with his roots.

The University of Washington student keeps on top of news from home and is regularly in touch with Canadian friends online.

Affleck-Asch-Lowe grew up in British Columbia and went on to serve in the Canadian army for seven years. When he finishes his PhD programme, he plans to come home and teach engineering.

"Once a Canadian, always a Canadian," he told the BBC.

And yet, living outside his country has cost William Affleck-Asch-Lowe his right to vote.

"It's really puzzling. I'm angry," he says. "It's part of the contract, right? I worked in Canada since I was 13 years old and I paid high taxes like everyone else."

Affleck-Asch-Lowe is one of 1.4 million Canadians living abroad who lost the right to vote last week.

The Ontario Court of Appeals sided with the Conservative government in a ruling that bars Canadian citizens living outside Canada for over five years from voting in federal elections.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Stephen Harper on his first day of campaigning - his government has argued for limiting expat voting

That right had been restored just last year, after a 1993 ruling disenfranchised the long-term expatriates,

But back then, the five-year time limit was reset for anyone who returned for even a short visit. Then in 2007, Elections Canada began to enforce residency requirements.

In May 2014, Superior Court Justice Michael Penny restored the vote to all Canadians abroad, arguing mass murderers have the right to vote, but expats don't.

This month, Chief Justice George Strathy changed that decision, arguing it would allow non-resident citizens to vote on laws that affect residents but "have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives".

The split decision has many Canadians upset, including actor Donald Sutherland, who weighed in with an editorial, saying he's Canadian through and through - honoured as an Officer of the Order of Canada - and yet he's not allowed to vote.

Judge Strathy called the five-year limit "reasonable and minimally impairing".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Harper faces a challenge from NDP and Thomas Mulcair

Writing for the court, he reasoned other countries have similar limits: 15 years for UK citizens, six years for Australians and only three years for expat Kiwis.

While many countries restrict the vote of non-residents, the trend is towards allowing greater electoral participation by citizens abroad, according to Peter J Spiro, co-director of the Institute for International Law and Public Policy at Temple University.

"The trend is pretty much unidirectional," he told the BBC.

"Extending the vote to external citizens is not yet universal, but it's getting there," he said. "And it's increasingly being framed as a right rather than a privilege."

According to a survey by Spiro, a number of countries, including Poland, Venezuela, Russia and Japan, provide polling stations at embassies and consulates,

France and the United States have moved to allowing online voting for citizens abroad.

Several countries have gone a step further. Germany allows citizens who have never resided in Germany to vote if "they have become familiar, personally and directly, with the political situation in the Federal Republic of Germany and are affected by it".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption .... as well as Canada's Liberal party and its leader Justin Trudeau

Kersten points out that others, like Italy and France, have created members of parliament to directly represent their expats. India has creating a government ministry dedicated to its expats.

Irish citizens may not vote at all while living abroad. Many within that country argue "with such a high number of emigrants abroad, Ireland would be overwhelmed".

Joining Ireland in denying the vote to expats are Zimbabwe and Nepal.

Canadian expats will have to wait to see where they fall: an appeal will not be heard before the next federal election in October.

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