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Communication Studies


The past decade has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of countries that have made provisions to allow for voting in national, regional and local elections by individuals residing outside the national territory. The adoption of these policies—in place in 110 countries at the time of writing—can be seen as a response to an increase in international migration since the end of the Second World War, a period that has witnessed that movement of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Recent estimates indicate that there are between 150-200 million people currently residing outside of their countries of origin.1 Granting migrants the right to vote has been an important step in ensuring that every individual is given a voice in government, even if that voice is not necessarily in the government of the country where that individual currently resides. In this way, these voting rights should be seen as the adaptation of institutions of democratic governance to realities of globalization.

However, it must be acknowledged that migration is not a new phenomenon. Therefore, it cannot be seen as the sole justification for the emergence of mechanisms allowing for non-resident citizens to vote. This is often referred to as “external voting.” The development of communication technologies, such as satellite television and the Internet, have changed the relationship between migrants and their country of origin, allowing for a much larger flow of information about everyday life and political events to reach a larger number of emigrants than in previous periods of high global migration. At the same time, these technologies have often made the experience of migration more visible at “home.” Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, these rights cannot be separated from the global diffusion of policies advocating multiculturalism and promoting cultural diversity.2 In light of such a context, it should come as little surprise that the question of external voting rights is and will continue to be particularly salient in countries like Canada, a country where nearly 20 percent of the population was born outside the country and a significant portion of that population is entitled to vote in elections of other countries as well as, in the case of dual citizens, Canadian elections.

My purpose here is to provide a brief outline of the development of external voting rights, some of the different contexts in which these rights are exercised, and some of the questions they raise for governments and citizens alike. The extension of voting rights to non-resident populations raises a number of questions about relationship between migration, territorial sovereignty and the institutions of representative democracy. While there is a long history of external voting rights being granted, it is only recently that the issue has come to garner significant attention on the part of national governments, international organizations and other actors in international affairs. At present there are no clear and explicit norms and regulation for the exercise of external voting rights internationally, an absence that is echoed in the Canadian context. By way of conclusion, I suggest that this is an oversight that should be remedied at the national level and an international dialogue to which Canada could productively contribute.


This article was originally published in Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law, 2: 303-314. © 2009 Carswell. Reproduced with permission

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