Canada plans to restore voting rights for long-term expats

Op-Ed: BBC

Canada plans to restore voting rights for long-term expats

Voters make their way in and out of the polling station at the Mary McCormick Recreation Centre, in Toronto's Davenport riding, during the October 2015 general electionImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES NEWS
Image captionProposed legislation would extend voting rights to more than a million Canadians abroad.

Canada plans to restore voting rights to some 1.4 million expatriates.

Ottawa is introducing legislation to allow expats who have been living outside Canada for more than five years to vote in federal elections,

Two Canadians living in the US have been fighting for the right to vote after learning they were ineligible to cast ballots in the 2011 general election.

Canada’s Supreme Court is planning to hear their case next spring.

The new policy is part of a package of electoral reforms announced on Thursday by federal Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef.

Ms Monsef called the five-year limit “arbitrary”.

“People have a very strong connection to this country and to their identity as Canadians. Just because they’re living abroad doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten about this place,” she said.

The law has been in place since 1993.

Gillian Frank, currently living in Princeton, New Jersey and Jamie Duong, who resides in Fairfax, Virginia, went to court to fight against the voting rights limits after trying to register online to vote in the 2011 Canadian federal election.

Donald SutherlandImage copyrightASSOCIATED PRESS
Image captionActor Donald Sutherland was among the critics of the voting limits

It became a hot-button issue during the 2015 federal election when an Ontario appellate court overturned an earlier win for the two expats.

Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, the father of Kiefer Sutherland, even weighed in, criticising the policy that stopped him and his wife from casting a ballot.

The lawyer for Mr Frank and Mr Duong, Shaun O’Brien, said they were heartened by the government announcement and called it “an enormous victory”.

But Ms O’Brien said they were still concerned that the appellate court ruling stated that it was constitutional to set an “expiration date” on voters abroad.

She said that meant legislation, if passed, was still “vulnerable” to being changed by a future government.

For the moment, the two are not withdrawing their challenge to the voting limits at the Supreme Court.

In 2009, there were an estimated 2.8 million Canadians living abroad.

About 11,000 Canadians living overseas, excluding armed forces members, voted in the last federal election.

Return of vouching

Canada is not the only country that places limits on the voting rights of long-term expatriates.

Citizens who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years are barred from voting. Two Britons who wanted to vote in the June EU referendum lost a challenge against that law earlier this year.

Australia and New Zealand also have varying voting limits for citizens who have lived abroad for extended periods.

On Thursday, the federal Liberals also proposed making it easier for people to vote within Canada by reintroducing vouching that allows one person to corroborate someone else’s identity at the polls and allowing people to use their voter information card as ID. Those provisions were controversially removed by the previous government.

Canada’s elections commission will also be allowed to pre-register Canadians between 14 and 17 years of age to vote.