The Irish government outlined details yesterday (22 March) for a referendum that could give citizens abroad the right to vote in presidential elections, and possibly bring Ireland in line with 23 other EU countries.
Aside from Ireland, only Cyprus, Denmark and Malta do not allow their citizens to vote if they live outside the country. Greece allows non-resident Greeks to vote only if they return home.
If the Irish referendum passes, the country’s electorate could balloon. Some observers claim it could be a gift for Sinn Féin by giving voting rights to the left-wing party’s supporters abroad.
Voters, for now only those in the country, will decide whether to extend rights to Ireland’s sizeable diaspora. A date for the referendum will be decided “in due course”, according to the government paper published yesterday.
For a country with a population of only 4.8 million, Ireland’s diaspora is huge: there are an estimated 3.6 million Irish citizens abroad. Irish embassies gave out almost one million passports to citizens outside the country over the last ten years, and over 600,000 to citizens born in other countries.
An estimated 3.2 million people are currently registered to vote in Irish presidential elections.
The government is considering several definitions describing who could be eligible to vote and how, and will draft an amendment to the Irish constitution after debating the so-called options paper at a government forum on diaspora policy next month.
The amendment will include some restrictions on voting abroad. Online voting won’t be allowed.
The government paper suggests either extending voting rights to all citizens abroad or allowing one of six other options, including restricting voting to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and anyone temporarily in another country who has lived in Ireland, or to citizens who left Ireland within the last 15 or 20 years.
Election law is reserved for EU member countries to decide but the European Commission has encouraged national governments to relax their voting rules.
“More could be done to deepen the democratic life of the Union and inclusive rules on participation of European citizens in elections are welcome,” Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said.
In 2014, the Commission criticised the five countries that don’t allow voting abroad. EU countries should allow their citizens to vote in national elections if they live in another member state, the Commission warned at the time.
Fifteen EU countries allow postal voting for their citizens abroad and 14 allow voting in embassies or consulates. Six countries allow both. Estonia and France are the only two EU countries that allow online voting but France dropped that option for the parliamentary elections this June over concerns the online system could be hacked.
UK citizens can only vote by post or proxy if they were registered to vote in a constituency within the last 15 years. Swedes can vote abroad if they have previously lived in Sweden and renew their voter registration every 10 years.
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who is expected to step down this spring, announced his plans to hold the referendum during a visit to Philadelphia last week (13 March), before he met with President Trump in Washington. Kenny also met with Irish diaspora organisations in the US.
“It is appropriate that this announcement is being made here in Philadelphia, where the Irish have made such a mark over the centuries,” Kenny said.
Ireland’s citizenship laws are comparatively lax for EU standards. Anyone whose parent or grandparent was born on the island of Ireland has the right to claim citizenship. That has raised concerns in Ireland that millions of people who have never lived in the country might easily be able to vote if the referendum passes.
Some critics have speculated that allowing Irish citizens abroad to vote would help Sinn Féin since voters abroad might be more likely to support the left-wing party. Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Sinn Féin’s spokesman for diaspora issues, said there is no evidence to support that claim.
Sinn Féin has called for Northern Ireland to hold a referendum on splitting off from the UK and uniting with the Republic of Ireland.
Ó Clochartaigh said the voting right referendum will need to specify some limitation on who can vote from outside Ireland.
“There is going to be some form of a time limit needed but basically a citizen of Ireland should be seen as a citizen of Ireland,” he told euractiv.com.
Noreen Bowden, a New York-based blogger who co-founded Votingrights.ie and holds US and Irish dual citizenship, said concerns that millions of voters abroad might swamp Irish elections are “unfair”.
“Most countries have a problem with getting their emigrants to vote. There’s no country where people say, ‘There are so many voters overseas’”, Bowden said.
The Irish government is trying to calm fears over a flood of new voters from abroad by pointing to low turnout among citizens abroad in other countries’ elections.
Trends from other countries suggest “the number of Irish citizens who may register or vote at a future presidential election could be very significantly lower than those age 18 and over among the estimated 3.6 million citizens resident outside the state”, the paper on the referendum reads.
Both houses of Ireland’s parliament will need to approve the government’s amendment to the constitution before it is put to a referendum. The next Irish presidential elections are in 2018 but the government said that even if the referendum passes, voters abroad will not yet be able to participate in that election.