In view of our election just past, and the one next week of our neighbours to the south, I thought it opportune to raise the topic of election laws, and more specifically, absentee voting.
Several weeks ago, I received in the mail an absentee ballot from the Board of Elections in Lorain County, Ohio. I dutifully filled it out, put it in an envelope, and mailed it in: voilà, my franchise duly exercised. No one asked how long I’d been in Canada (sixteen years), or if I intended to return to the U. S. (unlikely, at this point). As a U.S. citizen living abroad, I am entitled to vote in U.S. federal elections, in the place where I last resided. It’s as simple as that.
By contrast, many Canadians living abroad have no such right. If you are away for more than five years, with a few exceptions (such as diplomatic or military personnel), there is simply no mechanism under the Canada Elections Act for casting a ballot. This limitation was criticized as “arbitrary” by the House of Commons committee that studied the issue in 2006. Nonetheless, the government chose to reject, at least for now, the committee’s recommendation to remove it, stating that the issue required more study.
I admit I was astounded when I first learned of this restriction: in light of Sauvé v. Canada, wouldn’t this be an obvious violation of s. 3 of the Charter? Yet, it might be argued that the issue is less clear-cut than it seems. Canada, unlike the U.S., does not generally levy taxes on its non-resident citizens. If so, then what responsibility of citizenship might justify a parliamentary democracy, based on the principle (at least in theory) that the members represent their constituents, permitting voting by people who do not and may not ever live in the constituency in which they vote?
I myself tend to come down on the side of expanding the vote rather than restricting it. I think the right to vote as such is an incident of citizenship, and the issue of what riding someone votes in should be kept separate from whether that person is permitted to vote at all. If there are countervailing concerns raised by permitting Canadians living abroad to vote as electors in the last Canadian riding they lived in, alternative solutions exist: e.g. the Italian approach of having members of parliament specifically representing expatriates. However, I’m interested in hearing other ideas.