What is this blog about?

What is this blog about?

I am a political philosopher. My 'political philosophy' is a form of 'liberal egalitarianism.' So in this blog I reflect on various issues in political philosophy and politics (especially Canadian and American politics) from a liberal egalitarian perspective.

If you are curious about what I mean by 'liberal egalitarianism,' my views are strongly influenced by the conception of justice advanced by John Rawls. (So I sometimes refer to myself as a 'Rawlsian,' even though I disagree with Rawls on some matters.)

Astonishingly, I am paid to write and teach moral and political philosophy. I somehow manage to do this despite my akratic nature. Here is my faculty profile.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On voting rights and Members of Parliament for non-resident Canadian citizens

So there will be a federal election in Canada on October 19th.

I’m a Canadian citizen.  But from 2007 to this year I was not able to vote in federal Canadian elections.  The reason is that – despite living in Canada on a regular, albeit sporadic, basis (2-3 months every year, depending upon my teaching schedule) – my primary residence was abroad (Ireland until 2008, the United States from 2008 to 2014).   Fortunately, my year in Toronto has ‘re-booted’ my residency here, so I will be able to vote in the forthcoming election.  But more than a million other Canadians who live abroad will not be able to do so.

Since 1993, Canadians who live abroad for more than 5 years have been ineligible to vote.  Until 2007, however, merely visiting Canada was enough to ‘reset the clock’ with respect to one’s status (that is, after a visit, one would have to be away for another 5 years in order to lose the right to vote).  In May 2014, Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Penny ruled that this part of the Canada Elections Act was unconstitutional.  Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned this decision, thereby once again taking away the right of non-resident citizens to vote.  Hopefully this case will now go to the Supreme Court of Canada.  If it does, I’m optimistic that the voting rights of all Canadians will be affirmed and protected.  But until then, over a million Canadian citizens are denied the right to vote.

There has been a flurry of editorials and opinions pieces in the Canadian press recently over this issue.  The actor Donald Sutherland would like to be able vote again, and made his case in The Globe and Mail.  I admire his refusal to become a dual citizen.  Disappointingly, however, his piece is little more than a rant.  Given his fame, though, it has prompted further public discussion (e.g., this episode of CBC Radio’s ‘The Current’ [the host of which is terrible, but the first two guests have intelligent things to say]).

Central to the decision by the Ontario Court of Appeals is its claim that non-resident citizens should not be able to vote because the laws of the government of Canada do not affect their lives significantly, unlike the lives of resident citizens.  This strikes me as both irrelevant and incorrect.  I’ll explain why it’s irrelevant below.  Why it is incorrect seems obvious: Canadian foreign policy affects non-residents’ lives in significant ways – far more than it does the lives of most residents.  Moreover, Canadian citizens have the right to return to Canada at any time.  So any laws passed by the government will affect profoundly citizens’ lives upon their return to the country.  And of course, many non-resident Canadians have family and other significant relations in Canada, as well as property and other ties.  The laws of the Canada directly affect these interests.

Mark MacKinnon, a journalist for The Globe and Mail, makes a solid case that the Court’s reasoning is misguided in his opinion piece, “I am Canadian – but now not as much as I used to be.”  A piece at Rabble.ca by Raksha Vasudevan also does a decent job in rebutting the Court’s claim that the laws and policies of the federal government have no significant impact on the lives of non-residents.

In any case, as I mentioned earlier, the ‘impact’ or ‘profundity of effect’ justification for denying non-resident citizens the right to vote is irrelevant.  Voting rights are based on citizenship. According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons.”   If impact were the criterion for determining who should be able to vote in elections, then non-Canadians who reside in Canada should have that right.  (And maybe they should have the right to vote.  There certainly is an interesting discussion to be had on that question.  But the current understanding of ‘citizenship’ and its associated rights and duties, within Canada and most other liberal democratic societies, is not residency-based.)  Jackson Doughart makes something like this point in his piece at The National Post.

The five-year limit on non-resident citizens’ right to vote, I should point out, applies to all non-resident citizens, not simply dual citizens who do not reside in Canada.  (I mention this because such dual citizens seem to be the focus of some conservative defences of the law.)  Now I can understand – and indeed agree with – a requirement that dual citizens vote in only one country’s elections (presumably the one in which they currently reside, or most recently resided).  But most Canadians who live abroad are not dual citizens.  I am not a dual citizen.  (And I probably never will become one.  I think that the concept or dual  or plural citizenship is philosophically incoherent.  However, I’ll try to defend that claim on another day).

Now one difficulty for defending the right of non-resident Canadians to vote concerns the role of ‘ridings’ (electoral districts) in the Canadian parliamentary system.  In theory, every Canadian lives in a particular riding, and during an election the candidate who receives the most votes from the people who live in that riding becomes the Member of Parliament (MP) for that riding.  But many non-residents don’t have a riding in any meaningful sense.  While letting non-resident citizens vote for candidates in the ridings in which they last resided is better than denying them the right to vote altogether, there is, I think, a better option.

This brings me to the opinion piece by Mark Kerten, a researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  He points out that some other democratic societies provide special representation for non-residents:
Instead of constructing barriers to democratic participation, what a progressive government could, and should, do is to create a handful of members of Parliament to directly represent Canadians who live abroad. France and Italy already have parliamentarians who represent their respective diasporas. Why not have MPs on Parliament Hill to represent the unique interests and diversity of Canadians living abroad? Surely that could only enrich our democracy.
I’ve long thought that Canada should adopt something like the French model and allocate a number of seats in the House of Commons (perhaps 10-12) to non-residents.  (If this should ever happen, then my dream of becoming the MP for the riding of the ‘Greater Great Lakes Region West’ might finally come true!)

In any case, I have the right to vote in this election, and I look forward to exercising it on October 19th.  Hopefully a new government will come to power on that day, one that takes seriously the rights of all Canadians.

[UPDATE: This is now a 'guest post' at the blog 'In Due Course' (which is an excellent blog, one of the few that I regularly check).]


  1. A decent primer on the current election (especially helpful for non-Canadians):

  2. It is quite common to make residency a requirement for voting. The UK, Ireland and New Zealand all have some kind of residency requirement and a time limit after one has lived in the country after which one cannot vote. My worry with representation for the diaspora is that it dilutes the influence of the remaining nationals who actually live in the country. In a country such as Ireland, with a lot of overseas nationals, or pacific islands like Samoa or the Cook Islands this could be quite significant. Overseas nationals are not going to have to live with the domestic spending decisions that make up most of what a government decides. Overseas nationals are more likely to be sentimental in their voting behaviour because their votes are informed by their memories of the country they left behind not a country they live in now. They are likely to be less informed about politics the politicians and the issues of the day. How can they know whether investment in roads and infrastructure or after-school care should be the priority of the day? As citizens, overseas nationals are less patriotic than citizens who continue to reside at home because resident citizens prove their commitment to their country by living there. To some extent, the French model could alleviate the worry of diluting the influence of resident voters because you could have a different ratio of MPs to constituents for the non-residents, but the basic point that nonresidents would have power without responsibility because they choose not to live in the jurisdiction remains. The one exception I would make is for nonresident citizens who own property in their old country. They would have a continuing interest in the country, so they should get some representation.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Here are some quick replies.

      1. Regarding those "overseas nationals" who "are less patriotic than citizens who continue to reside at home", I think that those "those overseas nationals" should change citizenship! But I certainly do not think that one's basic rights should be base upon this kind of speculative generalization.

    2. 2. Regarding: "They [non-resident citizens] are likely to be less informed about politics the politicians and the issues of the day. How can they know whether investment in roads and infrastructure or after-school care should be the priority of the day?"
      Well, I don't think that many *resident* citizens are especially well informed about important policy questions. But we don't make their right to vote contingent on them passing some sort of test, do we? And, in any case, if a non-resident citizen is willing to go to the trouble of voting from afar, I think it is a fair bet to infer that that citizen is pretty politically informed. But rights of citizenship are not based on this sort of criterion.

    3. 3. Regarding: "Overseas nationals are more likely to be sentimental in their voting behaviour because their votes are informed by their memories of the country they left behind not a country they live in now."
      I don't think this kind of speculative generalization provides a solid basis for denying citizens a basic right.

    4. If the speculative generalisations were true, would that matter. I agree that policy makers shouldn't just leave it at the level of crude speculation. But if independent social scientists found that as a matter of fact, overseas nationals had idealised and inaccurate beliefs about their countries of origin and little sense of the issues that matter for current residents, would that change things?

    5. "But if independent social scientists found that as a matter of fact, overseas nationals had idealised and inaccurate beliefs about their countries of origin and little sense of the issues that matter for current residents, would that change things?"
      So should *resident* citizens also be subject to that criterion (namely, that if they hold "idealised and inaccurate beliefs about their countries," they should be denied the right to vote)?
      Either the 'test' should be applied to *all* citizens (which I think is obviously problematic), or none. Otherwise, one is making a law concerning a basic right based on a generalization (that all non-residents hold "idealised and inaccurate beliefs about their countries of origin").
      I'm sure that citizens who fail to attain high-school diplomas hold many more "inaccurate beliefs about their countries" than citizens who attain high-school diplomas. Yet I would not support disenfranchising *all* citizens who lack high-school diplomas based on that generalization!

  3. Isn't the issue in dispute precisely whether voting is the right of all citizens whether they are resident or not? So it would beg the question to say impact is irrelevant. (I don't know what the peculiarities of Canadian law are, but I am taking your post to be about the wider matter of voting rights for non-resident citizens generally not for this or that particular country, that is, what rights they should have, not what rights they actually have).

    1. Let's grant that basic rights can be based on citizenship and/or impact. The problem with basing rights on both citizenship and impact -- or simply impact alone -- is that we end up with all kinds of different 'grades' of citizenship. A citizen has more rights (or simply a right) with respect to x, if x has some kind of significant impact on her life. Another citizen has fewer rights (or no right) with respect to x, if x has little/no impact on her life (now? forever?). This isn't how we should think about citizenship and rights, or at least what can be termed 'basic rights' (the rights essential to citizenship). All citizens are *equal*, at least with respect to certain basic rights. One of those basic rights, I think, is the right to vote. In order to override such a basic right, the government needs to provide a compelling justification. And I don't think that speculations or generalizations about non-resident citizens' knowledge or commitment to their country rise to that bar. (I think imprisoned criminals should have the right to vote as well.)

  4. You put forward some interesting arguments. I am inclined to agree with all of your points regarding equality of voting rights for resident and non-resident citizens alike, so please don't take this comment as criticism, it's anything but - I merely intend to provoke some further thought.

    You assert that arguments along the lines of "unlike residents, non-resident citizens' lives are not significantly affected by the laws of country [x], therefore they should not be entitled to vote" are incorrect on the grounds that:

    1. Foreign policy still affects non-resident citizens of country [x] (perhaps even more so than residents).
    2. Non-resident citizens have the right to return to country [x] at any time, therefore would be significantly affected by any laws passed in the interim.

    I do not disagree with your assessment here, but a question that occurred to me whilst reading your post was:

    Q1. Would this not also be an argument in favour of extending voting rights, not merely to citizens of country [x], but also to residents?

    Then another, perhaps even more problematic question occurred to me:

    Q2. Would your first point not also be an argument in favour of extending voting rights to everyone in the entire World? After all, I am plausibly or potentially affected by the foreign policies of every state on Earth.

    To be clear, I fully accept your position that non-resident citizens should be entitled to vote. I'm merely curious as to what argument(s) you would put forward for extending voting rights only to citizens and not to residents, or indeed to all of humanity?

    1. I'm gonna guess he would say those putative implications are worries for someone who thinks what counts is impact on people's lives. He thinks citizenship carries all the weight and impact is irrelevant so he's in the clear. I actually had a drunken pub argument once with a bunch of guys in Philadelphia saying the whole world should get a vote in US Presidential elections because of the de facto status of most important man in the world enjoyed by the US president. One of the guys said he wouldn't care as long as the rest of the world also paid US tax. These days I think the extension of the franchise to overseas non-citizens is not implied by the impact criterion, because, while government decisions can and do affect the lives of overseas non-citizens, they don't affect the lives of overseas non-citizens (and citizens) as often or as frequently and extensively as they affect the lives of resident (citizens and non-citizens). The impact criterion needs an impact threshold to properly draw the demarcation. It's not a some impact or no impact thing. It's a significant impact that's important.

    2. Thanks for your comment, Ally.

      Underlying my argument is what I will call the “relationship model” of citizenship. According to this model, a particular kind of relationship exists between citizens and their states. Citizens’ states are the ultimate guarantors of citizens’ basic rights and interests. No matter where citizens are in the world, they have a right to appeal to their states to protect their basic rights and interests when necessary. Hence embassies provide support and protection to citizens abroad, and states’ foreign policies should (among other things) protect and further the interests of their citizens.

      Obviously it is much easier for a state to protect the rights and interests of its citizens when those citizens are at home, as the state in questions exercises sovereignty over its own territory. But even when citizens are abroad, their states have a duty to do what they can to protect and serve those citizens.

      (To be clear, what I’m outlining here is a normative conception of the relation between citizens and their states. It obviously is the case that states often fail to protect their citizens’ rights and interests. Such failures are injustices – those states are not doing what they ought to do.)

      While I’m sympathetic to the idea of allowing long-term residents the right to vote, I don’t think that such a position can be justified easily within the relationship model of citizenship. Non-citizen residents have no right to reside in the countries in question, and the states to which they are subject do not have the same kinds of duties to non-citizens residents as they do to citizens (granted, they have general duties to respect all persons’ human rights, etc., but those are far weaker than the duties that states have to their citizens). A Canadian residing in France can always be expelled if the French state decides to do so, whereas a Canadian residing in Canada cannot be expelled by the Canadian state.

      So moving to a system in which all residents can vote (as a matter of right) for the governments to which they are subject, irrespective of citizenship, would involve a different theoretical framework for thinking about the relationship between citizens and their states. I’m not sure (at least not right now) what that framework would look like. My post presupposes the relationship model.

      As for extending voting rights to everyone in the world, again, that would either require a world state (if we adhere to the relationship model of citizenship), or a different conception of citizenship. In any case, such a possibility seems utopian for the foreseeable future. My post is more modest: I don’t think that there would be any difficulty for Canada to adopt something like the French model with respect to enfranchising non-resident citizens.