The history of the franchise in Ireland is that of the gradual erosion of constraints placed upon who is allowed to vote based on religion, property/wealth, gender, occupation, prisoner status. In the contemporary period it can be easy to forget the major struggles of people that it took to remove restrictions within the franchise and usher in mass democracy, especially the campaigns for Catholic emancipation and women’s suffrage.
The current era of mass democracy is one where the right to vote is synonymous with citizenship. On becoming a citizen of a nation it is automatic to acquire the right to vote in national elections. There are two restrictions remaining on the right to vote in Ireland: age and resident status.
Stemming from debate and votes at the Convention on the Constitution in 2013 and the Citizen’s Assembly in 2018 the intention of the Irish government is to hold referendums in the near future which will alter both of these restraints on a citizen’s entitlement to vote. One referendum is planned asking if the voting age should be reduced to sixteen years. The other referendum planned will ask if citizens outside the state (i.e. who are not resident in the state) should vote in elections of the President of Ireland.
As the campaign has become more visible and the issue of extending the vote to citizens outside the state has become more debated one objection that has frequently surfaced, especially in the media, is that these citizens should not qualify to vote because they do not pay tax in Ireland. The assumption being that they pay tax solely in their country of residency. The phrase often used is ‘No representation without taxation’.
This amounts to both a conflation and a confusion of residency, taxation and the right to vote. The argument is not advanced about citizens resident within the state because everyone is aware that there are many people who vote in Ireland who do not pay tax. These include: some retired people; the unemployed; students; stay-at-home parents; and working people whose income falls below the tax threshold. There is also the understanding that it is citizenship that confers the right to vote.
This is even clearer when we consider the people resident in Ireland who do pay tax but cannot vote in national elections (e.g. migrant workers). When a migrant successfully completes the naturalization process in Ireland and becomes a citizen, one thing he or she realizes is that at the next Irish general election they will be able to cast their vote (as also in referendums and in Presidential elections). It is their acquisition of citizenship that confers this right.
Thus the argument that taxation is linked to the right to vote is only advanced as an objection to people outside the state voting in Irish national elections and referendums. As an argument it conflates residency and taxation with no empirical basis. This line of argument draws on but confuses a political slogan that was in widespread use in the United States before American independence.
That slogan ‘No Taxation without Representation’ was a rallying cry to extend democracy arising out of the context of the American Revolution and their fight against their colonial rulers. ‘No Representation without Taxation’ in contemporary Ireland is the opposite. It is a call to restrict democracy, to reinforce constraints on the exercise of citizenship. In Ireland there is no demand to tie taxation to voting rights in any other context: the penniless resident in Ireland is as entitled to vote as the wealthy resident, and net beneficiaries of taxation are not excluded from voting.
In a confused follow-on some objectors to extending voting rights to Irish citizens outside the state cite the fact that the US requires all citizens overseas to file a tax return as further proof of the present-day relevance of a link between taxation and voting. Overseas American citizens are required by Federal law to file a tax return (although incidentally they do not pay tax on income under $100,000), but this has no tie in with their voting rights.
All US citizens overseas have the right to vote in Federal elections for the President, Vice-President and both Houses of Congress. The one requirement is that they be registered to vote, usually this is at their last place of registration before moving abroad. Children born abroad have the right to vote and are registered at their parents’ last address before moving abroad. Registering to vote in a Federal election does not trigger any IRS scrutiny or new tax liability.
Furthermore, the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the right of any citizen to vote ‘shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.’
I have gone in to detail about the US because America is so often cited as a comparator, by those objecting to extending the right to vote in Irish Presidential elections to overseas citizens. Interestingly they rarely cite Ireland’s peers, other members of the European Union (EU). This is because 23 members of the EU (all but Cyprus, Malta, Denmark and Ireland) enable their citizens outside the state, whether elsewhere in the EU or further afield, to vote in domestic elections.
The European Commission has been very critical of member states that do not facilitate citizens abroad to vote domestically (and also are critical of time constraints on the right to vote) as it is seen as a possible infringement of the right to the free movement of labour within the EU.
Linked to the taxation issue when discussing citizens outside the state voting in Ireland is the notion that citizens must be making an economic contribution to the country to justify the extension of the vote. Aside from the obvious that this is not demanded of citizens residing within the state, what this objection overlooks is the existing economic links between overseas citizens and Ireland.
Emigrants who left Ireland in the last decade or so are often continuing to pay taxes, e.g. property taxes. Additionally, Ireland taxed all private pension accounts from 2011 to 2015, including those of emigrants, some of whom, depending on where they were living, were unable to bring their accounts to the countries in which they were residing.
Emigrants of earlier generations demonstrated their ongoing economic connections to Ireland by sending remittances. From the UK alone, in present-day values, between 1940-1970 €5.7 billion were sent to their families in Ireland (thejournal.ie April 9 2014 based on CSO figures). This was the economic contribution of what are usually referred to as the ‘1950s’ emigrants, many of them still alive today.
Objections to extending the right to vote to citizens outside the state on taxation and wider economic contribution grounds are very shaky, and run entirely counter to the present day goal of the Irish state to strengthen ties between Ireland and its diaspora. Currently there is a democratic deficit at the heart of Irish democracy. Extending the right to vote in Presidential elections to citizens outside the state will be a major step towards recognizing and rectifying this.
Mary J. Hickman
Adjunct Professor, MUSSI, Maynooth University
Professor Emeritus, London Metropolitan University
Chair, Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad (VICA)