Irish citizens abroad deserve to have their voices heard in elections

We need to address the barriers to voting as an Irish citizen abroad

In the lead up to my 18th birthday, two things were top priority on my to-do list: apply for my age card and register to vote. Throughout my years in school, I developed a deep interest in politics, fostered by my Politics and Society class. The 2020 general election was a riveting time, I recall the drama of the leaders’ debate when Leo Varadkar awkwardly responded to Pat Kenny’s question regarding taking illegal drugs. We got a real kick out of that in class the next day.

During the 2020 election, I was so frustrated that I was under the voting age and since turning 18, I had been counting down the days until I would be able to exercise my right to vote. The opportunity came this year, with the recent Family and Care referendums. However, there was one major barrier — I would not be in the country to cast my vote. As a European Studies student, I am currently on my mandatory Erasmus year.

Postal voting is permitted in Irish elections under specific circumstances. Irish diplomats and their spouses who are living abroad and members of the Defence Forces are eligible for postal votes. Those who cannot make it to a polling station on election day for numerous reasons, including illness or disability, as a result of their occupation, or as members of the Garda Síochána, may also be eligible. Students who are in full time education in an institution in Ireland away from where they are registered to vote, may also be granted postal voting rights. As an Erasmus student who is still registered at Trinity College and studying abroad as an obligatory part of my degree, I believe we should be included in this postal vote. Personally, I will not be able to vote in the local or European elections in June, as I will be taking exams. With opposition parties calling for a general election in the face of Leo Varadkar’s resignation, I could potentially be excluded from voting for the next government also, despite the fact I will return to Ireland at the end of the same month.  

However, the number of Irish students on Erasmus is nothing compared to the number of Irish citizens who have emigrated in recent years. Emigration is at its highest since 2016, with over 60,000 people leaving Ireland to live abroad in the year to April 2023, according to the Central Statistics Office. Those who emigrate remain on the electorate for 18 months and are permitted to travel back to Ireland to vote, provided that they ultimately intend to return to Ireland. This legislation exemplifies some of the most restrictive in terms of overseas voting rights in the world. An International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance global democracy report published in 2021 highlights how Ireland remains exempt from 125 states and territories that allow emigrants to vote in legislative elections. The existing barriers to overseas voting implies that emigrated citizens are, in a sense, considered less Irish. Their votes are not valued.

Emigration is part of the shared cultural experience of millions of Irish people, many of whom would prefer to and intend to establish their lives in Ireland, but are unfortunately being forced out of the country in search of job opportunities and better living standards in the wake of the housing and cost of living crises that we currently endure. There is evidently a desire from the Irish diaspora to be granted overseas voting rights, as seen through the #HomeToVote campaign during the Marriage Equality and Repeal the Eighth referendums. Expecting Irish citizens to “vote with their feet” has economic implications that not everyone can bear, especially given the concentration of Irish people in geographically distant countries like Australia. With half of those emigrating being in the age group 25–44, many of Ireland’s young voices are not being heard in elections. The expansion of voting rights and the introduction of a postal vote would combat this and represent a step forward in creating the future Ireland that they yearn to live in.

There is an argument against the expansion of postal voting and granting overseas voting rights. Phrases such as “no representation without taxation,” and “one person, one vote” are outlined by as common opposition remarks. Some may envision an American who has never been to Ireland who claims they are Irish just because their great-great grandmother was. However, other European countries like France have seats in parliament for citizens abroad, and multiple countries have an extended period for voting while not residing in that country, six years in Australia, which can be renewed, and 25 years in Germany.

As of November 2023, the Electoral Commission, An Coimisiún Toghcháin, has a draft research programme which proposes to examine postal voting. In 2013 the Constitutional Convention recommended that citizens living outside the state should have the right to vote in presidential elections. The subsequent year the European Commission accused Ireland of “disenfranchising” those living abroad, further conveying Ireland’s rigid voting legislation in comparison to other EU Member States. The government has committed to holding a referendum on this issue, yet this has continuously been pushed back and is now scheduled for 2025, to the dismay of advocate groups such as the aforementioned, who continue to support the cause.

Whether by postal vote, or by visiting embassies, extending voting rights to citizens abroad is a matter the Irish government must consider going forward. Emigration is only going to increase with the current social and economic climate of Ireland, and these citizens deserve their voices to be heard and votes counted in creating the country that they ultimately aspire to call home.