Patterns of Extra-territorial Voting

Issued by Migration, Globalization and Poverty, by MICHAEL COLLYER AND ZANA VATHI, Working Paper T22, 36 pages, Sussex Centre for Migration Research, October 2007.


The global survey presented here reveals that migrant voting is far more widespread than has been previously imagined. Even in 2006, writers on this topic believed that only a few countries allowed non-resident citizens to vote (Rubio-Martin 2006:127) but in fact the vast majority of countries for which information could be obtained have electoral systems allowing emigrants to participate in elections. With the exception of the 1990 Convention of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, ratified by only 43 countries, there is no clear internationally agreed obligation for the involvement of emigrants in elections and there is no clear consensus in the limited literature on the desirability of such developments.

Not only are emigrant voting systems widespread but, despite ongoing controversies, they are spreading increasingly rapidly. The Council of Europe has regularly recommended the enfranchisement of emigrants since 1994 (Council of Europe 1999; 2004). In many countries systems regulating the participation of emigrants in elections have remained unchanged for some time. This is most obviously the case for the 22 countries which prevent emigrants from voting, 21 of which date to before 1995. In contrast, the newest systems are those which explicitly address the situation of emigrants through the extra-territorial voting system.
The pace of change in this area also seems to be increasing as the largest number of extraterritorial voting systems has been introduced through very recent changes. There are no clear, universal determinants of migrant voting systems. Although the factors that have been suggested for certain regions such as the size of the emigrant population or the dependence of countries on emigrant remittances have some more general explanatory capacity, there are always several exceptions. There is not even any relationship between the extent to which elections have been judged to be free and fair and the involvement of emigrants, indicating the powerful symbolic significance of electoral participation, even when there is little practical argument for involvement.

The current situation of emigrant voting and the nature of developments in these systems provide valuable information on the respatialisation of state authority. The significant interest in the rights of non-citizen residents, including their right to vote in their country of residence, mirrors the dominant focus in academic work on immigration, rather than emigration. This focus led to predictions of the rapid decline of the nation state and the rise of post-national citizenship as individuals became a site of rights, regardless of their citizenship. Although this direction of thought produced some highly original research that provoked debates in the late 1990s on the continued relevance of the nation-state as a political institution, this is now widely seen as a rather over-excited and over-theorised interpretation of developments. Most significantly, this theorising lacked any broad empirical support. There are virtually no countries in the world that allow non-citizens to vote and those that do restrict it to very specific, limited categories. Voting practices may be the last and the best defended of the privileges of citizenship but the limited nature of their application to non-citizens suggests that any extension of rights remains superficial … (full text of 36 pages).

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