Ireland is unusual among large diaspora states in not extending voting rights to its emigrant citizens living outside the state. In a report published in February 2021, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance reported that that 73% of countries had provisions to facilitate emigrant voting and this marked a 16% increase from the previous study of this type in 2007 (IIDEA, 2021: 15).
Although Ireland is listed as one of the countries that does provide emigrant voting rights, a closer look demonstrates that Ireland has among the most restricted forms of these provisions, with diplomats, members of the defence forces and a small cohort of civil servants facilitated with postal votes. Citizens may legally cast their ballots if they are already registered to vote and plan to return to Ireland within 18 months but they must return to the state to physically cast their ballots. This contrasts sharply with many of our closest European neighbours who provide postal voting and embassy voting for all of their citizens abroad registered to vote. This begs the question, why is Ireland an outlier on emigrant voting rights?
Emigrant enfranchisement was part of a wave of democratisation reforms that gathered pace from the 1970s. International research highlights a series of variables instrumental in explaining the expansion of voting rights for emigrants. These include norm internationalization (Lafleur, 2015), democratization reforms in the sending state (LaFleur, and Calderon Chelius, 2011), emigrant lobbying and the need to develop and sustain economic connection with migrants (Lafleur, 2011), remittances and country specific dynamics in relation to emigrant groups (Collyer, 2014). Ireland lowered its voting age in 1972, emigrant remittances were a crucial support for the domestic economy for many decades of the twentieth century and in addition to having vibrant emigrant groups abroad, successive presidents prioritised diaspora engagement in their political platforms. Yet, Irish policymaking remained impervious to advocacy on emigrant voting rights until the economic crisis took hold in 2008.
There is a vibrant historical institutionalism literature that among other things emphasises that public policies tend to be relatively stable or sticky over time but opportunities for policy change can arise in the midst of a crisis when equilibrium is disrupted (Baumgartner and Jones, 2003). The Great Recession that took hold from 2008 provided an important opening for a national conversation on political reform. Responsibility for the catastrophic economic policy failings which led to the EU/IMF bailout landed squarely at the door of the political system. All of the political parties at the 2011 election had political reform platforms and the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government which swept to victory committed to establishing a Constitutional Convention early in its term. The Convention became the central plank of the government’s political reform agenda. Although the inclusion of voting rights for emigrants on the agenda of the Convention caused some initial surprise, it was part of a wider strategy of diaspora engagement with both political and economic dimensions.
Remittance flows are often a focal point of economic analyses of research on emigrant voting rights. The Irish experience, especially during the Great Recession is a concrete reminder that economic connections between emigrants and sending states are much more diffuse than remittance flows. Economic engagement with the global diaspora was a key strand of the economic recovery plan of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. New York based actor, Gabriel Byrne labelled the tourism initiative, The Gathering, a diaspora shakedown in 2012 but in truth the tourism scheme was only part of a wider suite of measures designed to encourage diaspora investment in Ireland. The Gathering as an idea emerged from the Global Irish Economic Forum which was established in 2009 and had an early focus on economic recovery. Similarly the Global Irish Network was established to advise the government on economic development. Investment, financial incentives and job creation were always close to the top of the agenda in conversations with the global Irish during the deep recession.
Economics may have provided the imperative for the sharp uptake in diaspora engagement by governments during the great recession but it was quickly established that greater political engagement with the Irish abroad would be part of the conversation and emigrant voting rights emerged on the agenda at an early stage. Indeed, Byrne’s criticism of the economic focus of engagement with the Irish abroad was important in pushing wider political dialogue.
Seventy eight percent of the members of the Constitutional Convention voted in favour of extending franchise rights to citizens living abroad. An Oireachtas Committee in 2014 supported the recommendation from the Convention and encouraged the government to act. When the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad failed in 2013, creating a panel for emigrant voters emerged quickly as one of the possible reforms and it featured prominently in the Manning Report on Seanad reform. Politicians and political advisers who served in the 2011-2016 government also noted in interviews that emigrant voting was a particular priority for representatives from the West of Ireland which has a much longer and deeper history of emigration than other parts of the state. Many cited the strong support for emigrant voting rights by Enda Kenny while he served as Taoiseach. Interestingly, the measure has broad cross party support.
Emigrant voting rights were on the agenda of Irish emigrant community groups as far back as the 1990s but the wave of emigration caused by the Great Recession brought a renewed vibrancy to their activities and a number of specific campaign groups lobbying for change emerged (Hickman, 2016). This energised advocacy was bolstered by, and indeed contributed to, the #HometoVote phenomenon at the marriage equality and abortion referendums when significant numbers of Irish citizens resident abroad returned to Ireland to support progressive political reforms. While the strict legality of some of those votes was questionable, the experience of the referendums provided concrete evidence that the Irish abroad wanted a political voice and if granted one, would use it.
In March 2017, the government published an options paper on external voting and while on a state visit to the United States for St Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that the government intended to proceed with a referendum on extending voting rights to Irish citizens living outside the state at presidential elections. In the background, slow progress was also being made on the establishment of an electoral commission, an essential reform to provide the underpinning administrative architecture for a global voter registration system.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted plans for the referendum on emigrant voting rights but the coalition government which took office in 2020 has affirmed its commitment to the proposal and dates in 2022 are now likely. Public opinion on technical political reforms can be very volatile and early opinion polls must be treated with great caution. The current small poll majorities in support of the proposal suggest that Ireland may be about to join the international movement towards enfranchisement of emigrant citizens. But debates about the likely impact on electoral competition, swamping and tipping and the costs associated with the measure have yet to be aired. Ultimately, it is probably true to say that if the emigrant economic shakedown wasn’t necessary, movement on emigrant voting rights might well be some way in the distance.
Baumgartner, F. and Jones, B.D. 1993. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Collyer, M., 2014. A geography of extra-territorial citizenship: Explanations of external voting. Migration Studies, 2(1), pp.55-72.
Hickman, M., 2016. Why has Ireland to date resisted the demands from citizens abroad to end their disenfranchisement? History Ireland, 24 (3).
IIDEA, 2021. Out-of-Country Voting: Learning from Practice. Stockholm.
Lafleur, J.M., 2011. Why do states enfranchise citizens abroad? Comparative insights from Mexico, Italy and Belgium. Global Networks, 11(4), pp.481-501.
Lafleur, J.M., 2015. The enfranchisement of citizens abroad: variations and explanations. Democratization, 22(5), pp.840-860.
Lafleur, J.M. and Chelius, L.C., 2011. Assessing emigrant participation in home country elections: The case of Mexico’s 2006 presidential election. International Migration, 49(3), pp.99-124.
Dr Theresa Reidy is a political scientist in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork. This research is funded by the European Union’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme of the Directorate-General Justice and Consumers. Grant number: 963348