Canada’s Supreme Court recently ruled that expats can vote in federal elections regardless of how long they have lived outside Canada. Unfortunately, the Court simply waived the current five-year period during which expats may still vote from abroad. It should have instead instructed Parliament to revise the law permitting expat voting in a manner consistent with Canada’s Westminster style of representative democracy. This problem was recently enshrined in federal law by the Liberals who passed Bill C-76, which granted expat voting rights by removing the time restriction but not addressing wider issues around expat voting.
In her article “Why should Canadian expats suffer for suffrage?” Ms. Rafiei advances valid points as to why expat Canadians should retain their right to vote. However, she fails to outline the challenges around enabling expat voting or present solutions that might address them.
As a Canadian born in Calgary, I moved to the UK to study a master’s degree in London in 2004. I stayed and obtained my British citizenship, stemming through birthright of my British mother. I voted in my first Canadian election whilst abroad. When I tried to vote in a subsequent election, Elections Canada denied my request for a ballot as I had been away for more than five years. While I was disappointed not to be able to vote, as I am an avid follower of Canadian politics and have a rental property in Calgary, I understood that my ties to my former local Calgary electoral riding where limited.
A defining feature of Canada’s electoral system is that we vote for local MPs to represent us based on the ridings where we live. Under Canada’s current law, an expat who has been away less than five years may vote in the riding where they last lived. If we simply remove the five-year requirement and allow all expats to vote, regardless of how long they have lived abroad, does it make sense that expats should vote in the riding where they last lived? As it is highly likely for most expats to have diminished connections to their former ridings and awareness of the interest of that local community, should their votes be able to swing the outcome of a local riding election?
In the 2015 federal election, 70 ridings were won with margins of 5% or less, meaning that a swing of just under 4,000 voters, on average, would have resulted in different winners. With the Liberals winning a 14-seat majority in 2015, if the 2.8m Canadians living overseas voted, increasing the average population of each riding by 8,300 voters, the outcome of the 2015 election could have been materially different. It is clear that enabling all expat voters to vote could have a real impact on Canada. Because of the lack of strong ties to local ridings and the fact that enhanced expat voting could result in different national election outcomes, Canada should consider how other countries balance the interests of expats and citizens living at home.
So how could Canada enable freer expat voting in a way that respects Canada’s Westminster style of government? We could establish overseas ridings, similar to those used by the French. Under this model, expats living overseas are grouped into overseas electoral districts by region. For instance, French citizens in Canada are able to vote for an MP who represents French citizens in the ‘Canada and USA’ electoral district. To my mind, this model is appropriate for Canada. The interests of expat Canadians are likely to be better represented by dedicated MPs rather than relying on local MPs, who very rightly so, are more focused on the local issues of the Canadian ridings they represent. For instance, when I needed to contact the Canadian MP where my rental property is located about issues I have had with the CRA, they failed to respond. I suspect he was more focused on local constituents. Perhaps if I had been able to reach out to an ‘expat’ MP, they would have taken more interest in my non-resident tax issues?
The French model also ensures that a few votes by expat Canadians does not tip a local Canadian riding race in a way that is not aligned to the will of the voters who live in the local riding. For this solution to work in Canada, we would need to create additional federal ridings and tie them to overseas regions. This may require consensus from the provinces, but it is a model that respects Canada’s current electoral system and provides expats with representation in parliament.
To mitigate unintended consequences, electoral reform should not be rushed, nor should it be left to the courts. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, Parliament should strike a committee and revisit Bill C-76 to investigate how other countries enable long-term expats to vote and devise a made-in-Canada solution. In an increasingly globalised world, Canada must look globally for ways to ensure that our global citizens can exercise their constitutional rights to vote in a manner that meets the needs of Canadian residents and Canadians living abroad.