European elections: This time I can’t vote

Ireland’s voting laws restrict students living abroad

The European Parliament launched an information campaign called “This Time I’m Voting” which encourages young people to vote in the European elections.  However, the issue is that Ireland’s voting laws are more restrictive than most of our EU partners. This can have a negative influence on voter turnout and disproportionally affects students on Erasmus exchanges, or languages students, who are spending their summer studying abroad.

Voting is empowering and few would contest how powerful the “Home to Vote” movement was for both the marriage equality and eighth amendment referendum. The trend was set during the Marriage Equality referendum, as #HomeToVote highlighted the journeys made back to Ireland by recent emigrants who wanted to have their say in their country’s future, in the hope of making Ireland a more welcoming and inclusive country. Enda Kenny praised those who he said “voted with their feet”. It was heartwarming to see how many young people were returning home to vote for equality. Campaigns like Get the Boat 2 Vote saw hundreds of Irish people returning from Britain to cast their vote, and stories on Twitter emerged of people travelling from further afield, with some even travelling from as far as Australia.

In a similar fashion, the referendum on the eighth amendment saw huge engagement with the “Home to Vote” movement. Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) launched a video encouraging 40,000 Irish people living abroad, who remained eligible to vote, to return home to have their voices heard. People came home in their thousands. I was working in Vienna at time and booked my flight home on the day the referendum was announced. I travelled back with two students on Erasmus in Trinity and we had a gruelling trip to the ballot box. The only reasonably-priced flight we could find was the evening flight from Munich. I booked the afternoon off work, and the day before the referendum took a five-hour train from Vienna Central Station to Munich airport. It was on the train when were scrolling through the “Abroad for Yes” Facebook group that we were all extremely moved. Thousands of euro was raised by the group through PayPal to pay for eligible voters to return home and have their voices heard. We read posts by Erasmus students deciding that evening, and even on the morning of the referendum, that they wanted to vote and asking for donations in order for them to drop everything and make their way to the airport to cover the costs of getting on the next flight to Ireland. The level of dedication to equality and democracy we were seeing made for an emotional train journey.

We made it to Munich airport and headed over to the Dublin gate where we were greeted by a sea of young people wearing Repeal jumpers. We bumped into other Trinity students who were on Erasmus. They were making the same journey back to the ballot box. There was a sense of determination, everyone was travelling home to ensure that no women in Ireland would have to leave their home country again in the future to access medical care. In Dublin, arriving slightly delayed just after 11pm, we were greeted by amazing support in the arrivals hall. Volunteers from ARC were taking shifts welcoming people who had made the trip back. People were being incredibly generous, offering beds for the night and lifts to bus and train stations. Everyone was acutely aware of the importance of everyone making it from the airport to their local ballot box and the significance of the journey they had just made.

These kind of social movements are empowering and show some of the best sides of humanity.  However, we have to ask ourselves, why does the state force us to make these journeys in order to have our voices heard in the first place? It is shocking that we are forced to travel home if we want a say in the future of our country just because we happen to be abroad for a few months. Ireland has failed to catch up with the pace of movement in today’s society, and is an outlier amongst its EU peers. A 2015 European Parliament Report on Disenfranchisement of EU citizens living abroad names Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Malta and the UK as the only EU states that completely disenfranchise their citizens from national elections when they are living in another EU state. All other states in the EU28 have provisions for their citizens to vote from abroad, at least for a few years after giving up their residency. Cecilia Wikström, chair of the European Parliament’s Report, argued that disenfranchising emigrants could be viewed as contravening EU Freedom of Movement laws as emigrants are effectively treated as “second-class citizens” by virtue of their living in another EU state.

The report notes that “disenfranchisement of nationals living abroad is based on the assumption that they lack knowledge of the political reality in their country of nationality, thereby depriving them of the ability to cast a well-informed and thus a meaningful vote”. This could be true of someone who has lived outside of their home country for a long period. However, it is certainly not the case for a student who is on Erasmus for a semester or two, or a student doing summer work or an internship in another EU country.

I am currently doing an internship in Berlin for six weeks which means that I cannot vote in the European elections. I tried to register here in Berlin, but was refused because I do not have an official rental contract. I have fallen through the cracks for eligibility to vote in the European elections. The electoral officers I spoke to in Berlin were absolutely shocked that there was no possibility for me to obtain a postal vote from Ireland. Whilst I was in the office trying to register to vote, there were people early voting: all they needed to do was bring their polling card and ID and they were able to cast their vote in the office. The facility is available in a small office of the local council from 8am to 1pm every weekday for a month preceding the election. This is much more civilised than Ireland’s strict laws on voting.

Under Irish law, as students sign up to Erasmus, spend summers working or travelling in other EU countries, enjoy their rights and benefits that come with EU citizenship, they are also disenfranchised unless they can afford to come home on the day to vote in person. Travelling home for a vote is both a huge financial commitment for students and a large time commitment. If an Erasmus student is sitting exams, or writing essays, when a vote is called it is unlikely that they would be able to set aside two days of travel in order to have their voice heard. Equally, students working or doing internships may only have short-term contracts and not to be in a position to take time off. It also creates a dangerous situation in which those with greater financial resources may be able to travel home to vote, but those without may not be able to vote. Students in the EU are increasingly mobile, which is a massive benefit of EU membership, but Ireland’s electoral system is not up to speed with what is needed for modern democracies.

The EU’s “This Time I’m Voting” campaign did excellent work in raising awareness amongst young people of importance of voting in the elections, and is ran campaigns in many universities, including Trinity. The manager of the campaign in Trinity campaign, James Bryant, states: “With so many important conversations taking place at the EU level – conversations around climate change, digital policy, defence, etc – I think it’s more important than ever that people engage with, and vote in the upcoming European elections in May.”  Bryant makes a valid point, however there’s a certain irony in the fact that Irish students heading abroad this summer to experience the best of what the EU has to offer are being left disenfranchised. The EU specifically targeted young people in their campaign, but some students may find themselves unable to vote today. I am sure that I am not the only Trinity student in this position during the European elections. If you are able to vote, please do so, and make sure to inform yourself about all the candidates and parties who are contesting. These European elections are crucial, as the possibility for a coalition of far-right politicians being formed in the European Parliament is becoming apparent. Young people must vote, and continue stand up for openness and equality.

Comhall Fanning

Comhall Fanning is a Deputy Features Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister German and Sociology student.