The ability of citizens to continue voting at home while living abroad varies tremendously across the world, but for those countries whose citizens do retain voting rights while resident elsewhere, how can this process be managed? For the first time, French expats will this year have dedicated MPs to represent them rather than being embedded and spread out among existing electoral districts within France where they hail from. Thus French presidential candidate Francois Hollande’s recent visit to London to woo the 300,000 French citizens living there is at least in part to appeal to the concentrated electoral presence that these voters now have.
Just 11 of France’s 577 deputies in its National Assembly will be elected through these new overseas constituencies, which carve up the world into 11 regions, and more generally, “only a few legislatures in the world reserve seats for citizens residing abroad” (or so Wikipedia says): in Italy this is twelve seats in its lower house, and six in its upper house. For France, all of Asia and Oceania will be one constituency, while Europe is divided into a few separate constituencies. And after their revolution, in elections held last year, Tunisian constitutional assembly elections saw 18 seats reserved out of 217 for overseas Tunisians. (See a good comparative summary from an Egyptian news portal)
Why should citizens living abroad continue to retain voting rights? ‘No taxation without representation’, the American revolutionaries complained, and so the legitimacy of the state to levy taxes is seen as being linked to the adequacy of the political representation of those being taxed. For others, voting may be an expression of the emotional connection that still remains with their country of citizenship. Dedicated constituencies may help to focus and express their concerns in ways that voting in electoral districts of their origin may not. Nonetheless, an objection may be that expat voters are largely insulated from the consequences of their electoral preferences, where the difference they make to voting outcomes is not one that they themselves bear (or benefit from).
But in any case, expat democracy of this sort seems a desirable consequence of the rapid movement of peoples across the world, in all directions, a marker of the phenomenon that we call globalisation. The Economist reported last year that some 215m people are first-generation migrants, facilitating business links, transmitting remittances, and encouraging the spread of ideas globally. Against this economic reality, however, the politics seems to lag behind – a world where expats and migrants, who may not be able (or want to) become naturalised citizens of their new homes, are effectively disenfranchised. National ties are still far from fading away, and the arrival of a global democracy not yet on the horizon. The challenges for globalisation are not just the economic, but the political; in this case, one of the consequences for political representation of the (partially-free) movement of labour around the world.