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Many countries are leaving Canada behind in expanding the rights of their citizens to vote in home-country elections while living abroad.
French citizens in North America will vote for their own representative in France's legislative election on June 6.The federal government forbids other countries from including Canada as part of an overseas constituency — one of the only countries to impose such restrictions.
The policy took effect in 2008 and came under fire last fall when Tunisia announced it would allow its citizens living abroad to vote for politicians representing foreign ridings — letting them participate in the first democratic elections since the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime during the Arab Spring.
But Ottawa refused the Tunisian embassy's request to collect votes from expatriates within Canada for a new riding representing North America.
Canada recently said the same thing to France. This June, for the first time, French citizens living in Canada will vote for a fellow expatriate to represent them and North America in the French National Assembly. The constituency is one of 11 overseas constituencies created in 2010 when France redrew its electoral districts.
A global trend
Rainer Bauböck, a citizenship studies expert at the European University Institute in Italy, says expanding expatriate voting around the world is an unstoppable trend.
Bauböck says some countries with large diasporas let expatriates vote for their own representatives to reduce the influence of the external votes. Rather than overwhelming the vote in some districts, citizens living abroad vote for a fixed number of representatives.
(This philosophy) is no longer really compatible with our ideas about freedom of association, freedom of speech, (and) freedom of political activity...
The federal government says the policy is intended to protect Canadian sovereignty.
"This (electoral system) could lead to the election of candidates who would be perceived, once elected, as representing fellow Canadian citizens in a foreign elected assembly," Foreign Affairs says on its website.
"The philosophy that foreign citizens should not be allowed to engage in political activity that relates to their homeland seems to me an early 20th century philosophy that is no longer really compatible with our ideas about freedom of association, freedom of speech, (and) freedom of political activity that must include the freedom of political activities that are related to your homeland," he says.
The policy also forbids candidates in foreign elections from campaigning in Canada.
"It seems to me to be a truncated idea of what democracy is about,” Bauböck says. “If a party wants to send candidates to campaign there, then why shouldn’t that be tolerated or even encouraged in order to make sure that the votes that will be cast there are as well informed as the votes that are cast in the homeland."
Canada, he says, is the only country he knows objecting to France’s new system.
Corinne Narassiguin, the French Socialist Party's candidate for North America, has lived abroad for nine years.
Corinne Narassiguin, a French citizen living in New York for nine years, is running for France’s socialist party for the position of North American delegate. Given the size of the constituency, she has campaigned mainly by social media, the Internet, and calling voters on registration lists.
Yan Chantrel, a spokesman for Narassiguin, says the vote should be considered no different from the upcoming April 22 presidential elections, when French citizens living in Canada will cast absentee ballots.
“We are going to vote for the presidential election here while being in Canada. We would like to vote in the same way for the legislative elections," Chantrel says. "And we feel like the french diplomacy hasn’t tried as hard as it should to make that happen."
Currently, Canadian expatriates who have lived outside of Canada for more than five years lose their right to vote. According to the Asia-Pacific Foundation, there are 2.8 million Canadians living abroad — nine per cent of Canadian citizens.
“Leaving the country doesn’t mean that it’s left you. It’s still a part of who you are. So you still care about what happens to it," he says, from his home in London, U.K. "If you let people vote, I think they’re largely more likely to come back, because they still feel connected to Canada."
Canada's response to past foreign elections
A brief history of expat voting
The Roman emperor Augustus is believed to have invented external voting when he allowed members of the local senate in newly established colonies to cast votes for candidates in Rome.
In 1915, Canada introduced mail voting for members of the military on active service.
In 1917, this was extended to allow military voters to choose the electoral district where their vote would be counted. If they did not, the political party chosen by the voter could do so after the in-country results were known.
B.C. let overseas military personnel vote in the 1916 referendums on women’s suffrage and the introduction of prohibition. But when prohibition was rejected, the overseas votes were cancelled, reversing the results of the referendum and introducing prohibition.
Canada introduced proxy voting for prisoners of war, allowing their close relatives to vote for them in the 1945 general elections.
British citizens who resided in Canada were allowed to vote in Canadian elections until the mid-1970s.
In 1993, the Canada Elections Act was revised so that Canadians living outside of Canada for less than five years were able to vote.
Sources: Elections Canada: A History of the Vote in Canada, the International IDEA Handbook