Limiting the expat vote: Another (un)Fair Elections Act tactic?

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Photo: flickr/Dennis S Hurd

Following in the disturbing trend set by the Fair Elections Act of limiting Canadians' voting rights, Ottawa is now fighting hard to make sure Canadians living abroad long-term cannot participate in the next election.

Last week, the Conservative government appealed a ruling which would have removed a historical limitation on the length of time that citizens can reside abroad and still retain voting rights. If the appeal succeeds, it means that Canadians living abroad for longer than five years would not be eligible to vote in federal elections. 

The Ontario Superior Court's decision is yet to be announced.

Unfortunately, even if the appeal fails, the process of voting from abroad will continue to be so troublesome that expats' participation will likely remain minimal. Which begs the question -- why is Ottawa so fussed about a few more expats becoming eligible to vote anyway?

In theory, a significant number of votes are at stake: more than 2.8 million Canadians are estimated to be living abroad. Although this figure includes children and others ineligible to vote, it still represents nine per cent of Canada's total population -- a constituency large enough to be politically influential.

That is, if they can be mobilized to vote.

Currently, the only way to vote if you are living abroad is for Elections Canada to mail you a voting kit, which you then have to fill out and mail back, making sure that it arrives no later than 6:00 p.m. EST on election day. This means that Canadians living in places with poor postal systems -- 41 per cent of the world's countries at least -- are effectively disenfranchised. Among those who braved the effort in the 2011 Canadian elections, 822 international ballots were returned too late to be counted.

The mail-in ballot system appears to be even more of an unnecessary dinosaur when it is clear that other solutions exist. These include voting at a diplomatic mission (used by more than 70 countries), by proxy (allowed by 16 countries), online (allowed in Estonia and the Netherlands), or by fax (allowed in Australia and New Zealand).

It comes as no surprise then that expats' participation rates are minuscule: less than one per cent of expats cast and had their votes counted in 2011. And while voter apathy is undoubtedly a key factor, research also shows that the convenience of absentee voting has a definite impact on mobile citizens' decisions on whether to vote or not.

A comprehensive review of the 1993 Canada Elections Act, which regulates both who is eligible to vote and how they can do so, is desperately needed to enlarge enfranchisement and facilitate voting for all citizens.

As Election Canada's head, Marc Mayrand said, "if [voter] turnout continues to decline at the pace it has been declining over the last 40 years… we'll have questions about the legitimacy of our government and how representative they are."

These questions are of course already being asked with the Conservative government's introduction of the Fair Elections Act, which has been widely criticized for making the voting process more difficult and mystifying.

Last week's move to overturn the Ontario Superior Court's ruling that the five-year voting limit for expats was inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is just the next step in the government's process of curbing democracy.

A spokesperson for Pierre Poilievre, the Minister for Democratic Reform who also tabled the infamous Fair Elections Act, said that citizens need to have "a direct and ongoing connection to Canada" to be eligible to vote.

Apparently, this expires after an arbitrary five years abroad.

While the government has yet to offer any evidence to substantiate this view, a 2011 study found that "Canadians abroad generally retain strong, multi-dimensional attachments to Canada" such as children being educated in Canadian schools, business ties, and/or an intention to return.

Canadians abroad also continue to bear many of the same responsibilities that residents do while using fewer national resources, such as paying taxes: expats are estimated to pay $6 billion in annual income taxes.

So we come back to the question -- why is the government spending taxpayer resources to stop these (tax-paying) citizens from voting?

Data compiled by Huffington Post Canada suggests that it could be to weaken support for the Liberal party.

In the 2011 elections, expats who voted by special ballot in urban ridings, such as the Greater Toronto Area, tended to vote Liberal. With the outcomes of the 2015 elections looking highly unpredictable, such a move could be another desperate manoeuvre similar to the Fair Elections Act to tip the race in the Conservatives' favour.

In the 2015 election, all eligible Canadians, both at home and abroad, need to vote -- both because it matters now more than ever, and because it is our right. And just like muscle mass, without exercising the right, there is a very real danger that it will melt away.

Raksha Vasudevan works in the international development sector, currently based in Uganda. She is also a writer, avid reader, runner and foodie.

Photo: flickr/Dennis S Hurd

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