Should More Dubliners Who Aren’t Irish Citizens Be Allowed to Vote in Dáil Elections?

Fernanda Otero stands on chalked-up concrete outside the site of proposed co-living in Rathmines, talking about her housing woes.

“It’s a hell, like I have to move nine times to find a place where I could live, like decently,” says Otero, a People Before Profit member, shaking her head.

The social media livestream pans right to find Brigid Purcell, the People Before Profit candidate for the Dublin Bay South bye-election, until then off screen.

“I think it’s not a wild idea that everybody living in Ireland deserves fixity of tenure,” says Purcell, dressed casually in black jeans and a loose cream cardigan.

Otero lives in Dublin Bay South. At the 2016 census, more than 20 percent of those living in Dublin Bay South said they weren’t Irish nationals.

Save for the 2 percent who are British, they can only watch this election – or canvass for their candidates of choice perhaps, as Otero has done. They aren’t allowed to vote.

Otero says that’s unfair and undemocratic. It’s not that everyone should be able to vote from day one in the country, she says.

“I’m saying someone that’s living here for a long time, is connected to the community, why this person cannot vote?” says Otero.

At least one of the candidates in the Dublin Bay South bye-election scheduled for 8 July agrees with Otero, while others do not.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Local Government said that proposals to extend voting rights to long-term residents who aren’t Irish “are not under consideration at this time”.

Having a Say

Otero is a Dubliner like all other Dubliners by most standards, she says. She pays taxes, goes to work and complains about the rents.

She has to contribute to the state and part of that is supporting the democratic system, she says. “But I’m not taking part in that position because I am not an Irish citizen.”

Which Irish elections residents can vote in depends on what level of government is on the ballot paper and what citizenship residents hold.

British citizens can vote for members of the Dáil, European Parliament and local councils. European Union citizens can vote in local and European elections. Non-EU citizens who are residents and have lived in Ireland for longer than six months can have a say in locals.

Otero, who is Brazilian and so falls within the non-EU group, says decisions made by the local authorities are rarely consequential to immigrants’ lives. “I don’t see the point of voting in local elections.”

Those running in the bye-election in her constituency have different views on whether non-citizens like her should be allowed to head to the ballot box.

Lynn Boylan, Sinn Féin’s candidate for the Dublin Bay South bye-election, says she would like to see Ireland let people who have been residents for five years vote in national elections.

She says the idea of excluding those who aren’t citizens from voting, even though it’s common globally, is othering.

It suggests somebody is part of society – but not really. “You can live here, you can go to school here, you can work here and pay your taxes, but you’re not really part of the society,” says Boylan.

In 2018, Sinn Féin proposed an electoral-reform policy that called for the expansion of voting rights in national elections to all adults who’ve been living here for five years, regardless of nationality.

Purcell, the People Before Profit candidate, said non-citizens don’t get an exemption from the laws made in the Dáil, so they should “have their voices heard at the polls, and they should be allowed to vote”.

James Geoghegan, Fine Gael’s Dublin Bay South candidate, referred queries on this issue to the party’s press office.

Fine Gael supports the notion of inclusion, said a spokesperson for the party. A recent motion at the party’s ard fheis, they said, sought to expand the eligibility criteria for citizens’ assemblies.

“To include those eligible to vote in local elections, rather than just Dail elections as current procedure,” the spokesperson said.

They didn’t say if they would support broader voting privileges for non-citizens.

Deirdre Conroy, the Fianna Fáil candidate, said that as it was a query to do with government, she had forwarded it on for a response.

But “it makes sense for all people working and living in the country to have some access to the government and elections”, she said.

Across the World

Most countries are not big on giving away national voting privileges based on how long someone spends on their soil.

Only five countries worldwide offered what can be called universal voting rights to their legal residents regardless of nationality, according to an April 2020 report: New Zealand, Chile, Malawi, Ecuador and Uruguay.

In Chile, which has been generous with its voting rights since 2012, migrants need to stay for five years before earning the right to vote in elections for national office.

Since 1975, some non-citizens living in New Zealand can vote in all elections there after a year of legal residency.

Kate McMillan, an associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand says: “I think democracy is enhanced by the participation of as many people as possible.”

From the passage of the New Zealand Constitution Act in 1852, until the Electoral Act was amended in 1975, a person had to be a British subject to vote in New Zealand, says a 2014 paper McMillan co-authored.

As the British empire withered though, and the UK adjusted its relationships with its former dominions and colonies – they did the same in return.

Canada and Australia followed the dominant trend and made it a requirement that people voting in their elections be their citizens. This disenfranchised British subjects living there who weren’t citizens.

New Zealand followed a different path. It took a sentence in its Electoral Act that required a voter to be a “British subject ordinarily resident in New Zealand [who] had resided in New Zealand continuously for at least 1 year” and just deleted the “British subject” bit.

It’s a bit unclear why New Zealand took this different path. It was in an inclusive moment, politically – although “this inclusiveness was intended less for ethnic minority non-citizens than it was for the ‘kin’ migrants from the United Kingdom who dominated migrant flows at that time”, the paper says.

The law, though, applied to everyone. However, today, it’s not as simple as that sounds, says McMillan.

Under the country’s Immigration Act, a resident is someone on a stable visa with a clear path toward citizenship, McMillan says. Someone who at some point has to leave doesn’t qualify, she says.

This excludes many on temporary visas from voting privileges, even if they have lived there longer than a year.

“The Electoral Act defines who’s able to vote, as soon as you’re a resident, but the people who come, they may live here, but they are not a resident,” she says.

Foreign manual labourers, like construction workers or plumbers, or even international students, remain on short-term visas and can’t vote, even if their visa is renewable.

Letting long-term residents vote in the Dáil and presidential elections in Ireland would require constitutional change, says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Local Government.

Electoral reform is in the works, although it has to do with the expansion of voting rights for Irish citizens who live abroad, said the spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Local Government.

Jennifer Kavanagh, a law lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology and the author of Electoral Law in Ireland, says that it could be done through legislation.

The constitution used to say that only citizens could vote in general elections, she says. But it was amended in 1984 to allow British citizens to vote.

“There was a large political weight behind allowing these reciprocal voting rights,” she says.

Irish citizens in the UK had an automatic right to be included in the electoral register there, and there were sensitivities surrounding constitutional identity and the north, she says.

Because of how that was done, though, any further moves to broaden the base of who can vote could be done through legislation, rather than further constitutional amendments, she says.

Only Citizens

Bryan Fanning, a professor of migration and social policy at University College Dublin, says he is not in favour of giving universal voting privileges to non-citizens.

“The reason being is that citizenship is an important thing and a significant thing in many different ways,” he says.

When a long-term resident chooses not to apply for citizenship, that means the country is not politically responsible towards them, says Fanning.

The idea of non-citizens voting carries with it a sense of unrealistic idealism and its proposal would prove controversial, he says.

“I don’t know, for example, what country you’re a citizen of, but I imagine if it was put to the people of that country, can foreigners living in that country, can they vote without becoming a citizen, then I think it would be quite a heated debate upon it,” Fanning said.

Instead, more migrants, especially European citizens with free-movement rights who may be slower to apply than those without, should be encouraged to apply for citizenship, engage in politics and run for office, he says.

“The bottom line is that people who are entitled to apply for citizenship, a very, very high percentage of them, you know, in the high nineties, get it,” he said.

A December 2020 report from ESRI noted that between 2014 to 2017, the ratio of refusal rates to naturalisation certificates issued was low and ranged between 3 and 6 percent. In 2018, though, that jumped to 15 percent.

Vittorio Bufacchi, a senior philosophy lecturer at University College Cork, says he has pondered whether to seek Irish citizenship to gain full voting rights but never acted on it.

The condition is especially unfair for people who can only obtain citizenship by renouncing their origins, says Bufacchi who is an Italian citizen but an active member of the Labour party in Ireland.

He is allowed dual citizenship. But some countries don’t allow it, he says.

Under Japanese law, for example, dual citizenship is not allowed. Either you stick to your Japanese citizenship, or you lose it.

Bufacchi say it’s challenging to imagine how expanding voting rights to all adult residents could change politics and debates around imigration in particular.

McMillan, the associate professor in New Zealand, said it has made anti-immigrant policies less politically attractive there.

Most political parties in New Zealand have consistently shut down anti-immigrant rhetoric and prefer to “compete for the votes of new migrants”, says a 2015 study that she did.

Kavanagh, the law lecturer in Waterford, said one possible effect of broadening the base might be a greater push for immigration reforms.

“The average Irish citizen voting has no idea of how archaic and cumbersome, to put it mildly, these rules are,” she said,

“Allowing for those who have knowledge of this system to vote might finally result in political pressure to reform this,” said Kavanagh,

It comes back to the idea of no taxation without representation, she says. “If you’re paying your taxes and using the services of the state you should have a say in how this is run irrespective of your passport.”

Canvassing Non-Citizens

Aaron Koay plans to live in Ireland a while so would love to vote, he says. “It’s definitely frustrating that I am unable to have my voice heard.”

The housing crisis and years spent on a student visa not counting toward citizenship are two big issues impacting his life, he says.

Canvassers are not allowed to knock on students’ doors in the on-campus accommodation block at Trinity College Dublin, where Koay, a pharmacist from Malaysia lives.

If they did call by, he would want them to take the time to talk even after they find out he can’t vote. “It would be great if they would lend an ear and advocate for people like myself.”

Boylan, the Sinn Féin candidate, says her team tries to avoid knocking on the doors of unregistered voters.

But if they do, they’ll talk, she says. “If they’re interested in talking about their concerns and issues, then we’ll always talk to somebody and advise them.”

Ivana Bacik, who is running in Dublin Bay South on Labour’s ticket, says she likes to make a point of speaking to most people she meets on the campaign trail.

“Citizenship status is not and should not be an impediment to political engagement,” says Bacik.

“It is vitally important that all people who live in Dublin Bay South can be heard in the democratic process, as well as those who _vote _in Dublin Bay South,” she said in an email.

A spokesperson for Fine Gael said that it’s very important to the party to “make an effort to listen to and talk with all residents and communities, regardless of whether or not they are eligible to vote”.

“Canvassing is an important opportunity for Fine Gael to engage with all members of society and to hear their views on the issues that matter to them most,” they said.

Deirdre Conroy, the Fianna Fáil candidate, said: “I am still pleased to meet people on doors if they cannot vote. And if they have questions, I respond where I can.”

Root of Resistance

McMillan, the associate professor in New Zealand, says political paranoia is often at the root of governments’ resistance to the idea of granting suffrage to all their legal residents.

Some governments worry that migrants are loyal to their countries of birth, and their governments might try to use their votes as a vehicle to meddle in others’ domestic affairs, she says.

If the path toward citizenship is relatively smooth in a country, and an immigrant still decides not to apply, McMillan says, then governments can safely assume where their loyalty lies.

“And when their home country has interests that differ from their country of residence, that’s when non-citizen voting becomes problematic,” she says.

“For example, China is reaching out very strongly to its diaspora populations through the United Front,” she says.

The United Front is a government department within China tasked with influencing members of the Chinese diaspora to continue to support the Communist Party, she says. “So, you can see how that would be a concern for governments.”

Other countries, such as India, she says, also keep in regular contact with their citizens scattered around the world – and it doesn’t mean it’s anything malign, she says, but governments can view these connections as a risk.

When McMillan carried out her research back in 2015, most New Zealand citizens were unaware that non-citizens could vote.

Shortly after, she says, the issue became contentious when the country launched a public consultation to change its flag, eliminating its Union Jack.

The leader of a populist party, at the time, put the spotlight on the issue of non-citizen voting, she says.

“He was like, Why should people who aren’t citizens be able to say what our national emblem is?” she says.

McMillan says she worries that in a world susceptible to far-right rhetoric, as more people become aware that non-citizens can vote in New Zealand, things might change.

“I think as people get to know more about it, there are some aspects of it that might get tightened up,” she says.

For now, she remains proud of her country’s accidentally liberal decision, which became its truly progressive legacy over time.

When migrants vote, “there is pressure on the government and the parties to take their views into account”, she says.

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Reader responses

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Stan Erraught
at 7 July at 08:49

Great piece. Scotland extended the franchise recently to non-citizens with 5 years residency also https://www.gov.scot/news/right-t…

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