The right to vote is the fundamental tenet of democracy. Through one's ballot, a citizen is transformed into a politically relevant force. He or she is given the power to take charge of their own fate, to voice what they stand for, and to choose those who lead them.
It is a power held dear by many and which has been, and is being, fiercely fought for across the world. It is a right that seems inalienable, that seems to be imbued in us by the simple virtue that we are human, that seem impossible to justifiably take away from someone. The right to vote comes with birth and ends with death.
Or does it? Might the right to vote end also with emigration?
After all, several countries around the world, for instance the Republic of Ireland, Israel, India, and the Philippines, do not allow emigrants to vote in their elections, whether or not those emigrants still hold citizenship in those respective countries. Exceptions are made only in special circumstances, such as with the military, people stuck in foreign countries due to illness or disability, and diplomats working abroad.
Some countries, such as the U.K., allow absentee voting for a certain period of time before revoking it from emigrants. Others have still different solutions to the question, such as the Netherlands where proxy voting is allowed, under which system a voter can be authorised to cast somebody else's vote on their behalf.
The numbers associated with this issue can be surprising. 36% of Irish citizens cannot vote in Irish elections due to their residency abroad. 71 countries in the world do not enfranchise their citizens who have emigrated.
What argument can be made to justify the situation whereby a citizen who has commited no crime has their voting rights taken away from them?
It turns out, an interesting one. Voting, it can be argued, is something you are allowed to do because you are someone who has earned the right to vote and who needs the ability to vote. If you emigrate, then you no longer qualify as such a person.
After all, you are no longer contributing to the welfare and success of your home country. You are no longer paying taxes which will be redistributed throughout that country, and you have taken yourself, your activity and your assets abroad for the long term future. It is quite possible that the old banner "no taxation without representation" can be understood to work both ways.
Furthermore, though you may well keep an emotional concern and loving connection to your home country, the way in which your home country is governed ceases to have any practical relevance to you once you emigrate. When you live somewhere on a long term basis you have a stake in that country's future. Its course becomes your course, hence your right to have a say in the direction the ship is sailing. The opposite applies for countries where you do not live.
The simplest way the argument can be put is "why should someone in Australia have the right to decide who is governing me here in Argentina?"
Yet, the instinctive democratic answer to the dilemma of votes for emigrants seems to simply be that you have the right to vote by virtue of being a citizen, and anything else is a removal of your democratic rights. However, democracy is seen in many ways as a means of empowerment, of unshackling a man from the past and giving him the power to affect the future. Why then, should more emphasis be placed on where he was born or who his parents were, than where he is now?
However, this argument raises another question. How long should one be living in a country before his or her inability to vote in that country's elections can be considered a criminal removal of that person's right to command their fate and earn their due rewards for contributing to that country's society and economy?
Paths to citizenship can be notoriously difficult for immigrants around the world, with many countries putting far more emphasis on policies which are directed at keeping immigration low and finding and deporting illegal immigrants.
The debate over voting rights for emigrants and immigrants is, however, becoming increasingly relevant in the globalised world of today. Europe in particular is faced with ever more questions of the rights of emigrants. The European Union explicitly works to achieve a complete freedom of movement of people within the EU. Actively encouraging and enabling emigration, European leaders, and the citizens that vote for them, will have to find ways of solving the problems that arise as a consequence.
As the world gets ever smaller, these questions are going to need addressing.