Political Participation from abroad: diverse approaches to a challenging policy area

By Bård Drange.

Can you still vote if you move away from your home country? 

© moonrun - Fotolia.com

© moon­run — Fotolia.com


If you are from one of the around 115 coun­tries in the world that allows exter­nal vot­ing, your answer would be yes. What elec­tions cit­i­zens from these coun­tries can vote in, and how they could vote, how­ev­er, dif­fers substantially.

With a vari­ety of com­bi­na­tions of vot­ing rights, vot­ing meth­ods and vot­ing and reg­is­tra­tion require­ments, coun­tries tend to stake out their own approach to the issue. The rea­sons for these dif­fer­ent approach­es are diverse: They could be finan­cial, polit­i­cal, moral or oth­ers. What fol­lows is a brief intro­duc­tion to the issue of exter­nal vot­ing with some thoughts on the most impor­tant ques­tions con­cern­ing a con­tro­ver­sial yet fas­ci­nat­ing pol­i­cy area.
In 2007, the Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute for Democ­ra­cy and Elec­toral Assis­tance (Inter­na­tion­al IDEA) iden­ti­fied 115 coun­tries that allowed for some or all cit­i­zens abroad to vote in one or more elec­tions. Aus­tralia (1902) and the Unit­ed King­dom (1918) intro­duced exter­nal vot­ing for some cit­i­zens ear­ly on. Danes intro­duced postal vot­ing in 1980, while Mex­i­can cit­i­zens abroad vot­ed for the first time in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in 2006.

Exter­nal vot­ing procedures

Postal vot­ing is the only means of vot­ing in 25 coun­tries, while 54 coun­tries allow per­son­al vot­ing only. Four coun­tries use proxy-vot­ing (hav­ing anoth­er per­son cast the vote on their behalf, most­ly in their home coun­try) only. The oth­er coun­tries adopt some com­bi­na­tion of these vot­ing meth­ods as well as e‑voting and vot­ing by fax. The com­bi­na­tion of postal vot­ing and proxy vot­ing, for exam­ple, is only prac­ticed by India and the UK. Remote e‑voting (as opposed to ‘polling place e‑voting’) was in 2007 only allowed in the Nether­lands and Estonia.

Among impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tions in design­ing exter­nal vot­ing pol­i­cy are cost, effi­cien­cy and secu­ri­ty. While per­son­al vot­ing ensures pri­va­cy and guar­an­tees recep­tion of the bal­lot, it is lim­it­ed by a country’s spread of diplo­mat­ic sta­tions. While Rus­sia spreads across 140 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries, Peru cov­ers only about 55. Postal vot­ing can take place from through­out the world, though it might be slow­er and could include high­er expens­es. As IDEA points out, it is “most com­mon­ly found in West­ern Europe” (IDEA: 25), though also Mex­i­co, Bangladesh and Zim­bab­we are included.

To design the exter­nal vot­ing poli­cies of the future, there are three sets of ques­tions gov­ern­ments must ask themselves.

The first set of ques­tions and chal­lenges: Legal and nor­ma­tive questions

The first ques­tions are of legal and nor­ma­tive char­ac­ter and might go back to the ques­tion of who com­prise the demos. Do res­i­dents (per­ma­nent­ly or tem­porar­i­ly) have the right to influ­ence a soci­ety in which they do not phys­i­cal­ly live? Should vot­ing rights be decid­ed by indi­vid­u­als based on feel­ings of belong­ing and iden­ti­fy, or should vot­ing rights be allo­cat­ed to those direct­ly affect­ed by the deci­sions? Should cit­i­zens liv­ing abroad, for exam­ple, be able to influ­ence tax poli­cies with­out hav­ing to face the polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic consequences?

The sec­ond set of ques­tions and chal­lenges: Who should be able to vote?

A sec­ond set of ques­tions aris­es from an affir­ma­tive response to the ques­tion above: if cit­i­zens abroad are allowed to vote, should this apply to all with a valid cit­i­zen­ship or do cer­tain require­ments have to be met? In Zim­bab­we only cit­i­zens abroad in the ser­vice of the gov­ern­ment may vote. Mau­ri­tius only allows diplo­mat­ic staff, while Malaysia also allows stu­dents abroad to vote (IDEA: 19). The major­i­ty of coun­tries, how­ev­er, allow all cit­i­zens to vote.

A par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive top­ic is the case of polit­i­cal refugees: few gov­ern­ments would will­ing­ly allow this group to vote since their polit­i­cal views are nec­es­sar­i­ly anti-gov­ern­ment. Oth­er ques­tions include the length of stay abroad and inten­tions to return. Ger­many for exam­ple requires per­sons who want to vote from abroad to per­ma­nent­ly have lived in Ger­many for three con­sec­u­tive months with­in the last 25 years (IDEA: 99).

The third set of ques­tions and chal­lenges: How should exter­nal vot­ing happen? 

A third set of ques­tions con­cerns the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of exter­nal vot­ing and what these prac­tices mean for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote. While some coun­tries use postal vot­ing, cit­i­zens of coun­tries only accept­ing per­son­al vot­ing might not be able to trav­el to the clos­est diplo­mat­ic sta­tion (if there is one). Oth­er obsta­cles include pick­ing up vot­er reg­is­tra­tion information:In Cam­bo­dia, for exam­ple, vot­ers have to reg­is­ter with­in the coun­try before­hand. More­over, for a 1993 elec­tions, they only put up polling sta­tions in Paris, New York and Syd­ney. In order to tack­le such chal­lenges, cit­i­zens must invest time and mon­ey. This dynam­ic often pro­duces low vot­ing turnouts com­pared to in-coun­try turnout. To what extent should gov­ern­ments invest time and mon­ey into pro­vid­ing cit­i­zens abroad the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote? How can gov­ern­ments fac­ing dire straits at home jus­ti­fy using mon­ey on enabling cit­i­zens abroad to vote?

Look­ing ahead

One should acknowl­ed­geth­at not all coun­tries will be able to pri­ori­tise putting polling sta­tions around the world. What might medi­ate this ten­sion are cheap­er and more effi­cient vot­ing options. E‑voting is a promi­nent exam­ple. It is more con­ve­nient for vot­ers, it is faster and it could be less cost­ly. It has been test­ed in, for exam­ple, France and Spain in 2003, while the US did not con­sid­ered it secure enough to through with it in 2004. Wide­spread e‑voting seems, how­ev­er, to be lay­ing a cou­ple of decades away. At that point, gov­ern­ments should yet again assess costs and ben­e­fits of dif­fer­ent meth­ods and prac­tices. Per­haps less cost­ly vot­ing options would con­vince oth­er­wise reluc­tant coun­tries to extent vot­ing rights to all cit­i­zens abroad? One can cer­tain­ly hope.
Source: Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute for Democ­ra­cy and Elec­toral Assis­tance (2007). ‘Vot­ing from Abroad. The Inter­na­tion­al IDEA Hand­book’ (Stock­holm: Try­dellstryck­eri AB).

Bård Drange is a stu­dent of Inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and his­to­ry at Jacobs Uni­ver­si­ty Bre­men and was for­mer­ly an intern at the Nobel Institute/University of Oslo and an exchange stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh. His inter­est in exter­nal vot­ing was trig­gered by con­ver­sa­tions with Malaysian and Zim­bab­wean friends unable to vote in home coun­try elec­tions. He is cur­rent­ly writ­ing a BA the­sis on polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion in mul­ti­cul­tur­al environments.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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