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?
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?
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.