Foreign voters

Italian Parliament Building, Palazzo Montecitorio, Rome (picture Hadi)

A novel feature of this weekend’s Italian election is the introduction of seats in parliament to represent expatriates. Twelve seats in the lower house and six in the upper house will be filled by residents of four overseas constituencies, elected by the more than three million Italian registered voters who live abroad.

It is common for expats to have the right to vote in domestic elections, but to have dedicated seats is unusual.

The hundreds of thousands of British citizens who have taken up their EU rights to go and live in Spain may vote by post in British general elections, for example, but their votes are counted in the constituencies in which they used to live. Other countries, such as France, allow their citizens to cast their votes at French embassies abroad. Italy used to require its expats to return home to vote: this also has been changed to be replaced by postal voting.

And there was in fact a suggestion that Hungary would set up polling stations in neighbouring countries – in Romania and Slovakia, in particular – so that ethnic Hungarians, while technically citizens of those other countries, could also vote for the parliament in Budapest. This proposal aroused a lot of hostility from Hungary’s neighbours, afraid that this might be the first step down the road of redrawing the borders settled by the Trianon treaty of 1920, and was not in fact put into practice. This was in the early years after the end of Communism and there was a lot of uncertainty about what the future would hold: whether it would be marked by a reopening of all the old questions. The tragic experience of Yugoslavia shows that such fears were not necessarily misplaced.

But that’s a digression. The point is that there is an intersection between nationality, ethnicity and territory that provokes some interesting questions.

According to the BBC, (read the report here) there are 400,000 potential Italian voters in Argentina. Now they won’t all be first generation immigrants: many will be the descendents of such immigrants. They will have the right to vote in Italy even though they might never have been there. On the other hand, there will be foreigners legally and permanently resident in Italy who pay taxes and are affected by the decisions of the government in all sorts of ways but who have no vote. The Maastricht treaty gives the right to vote to the citizens of other EU member states but only in municipal and European elections – the most important elections, the national ones, stick out as an obvious gap in the rules.

There is a balance to be struck regarding the rights and duties of a country’s citizens who choose to live abroad, and there is an interesting contrast with the rights and duties of immigrants, too. We investigated this when working on the Citizens for Europe conference pack, to illustrate various points about the development of European citizenship. (You can read thr pack here citizensineurope.)

Now, it is one thing to extend the franchise to expats. It is another thing to create expat parliamentary seats. The ratio of parliamentary seats to population is much smaller for these expat seats than it is for domestic seats, which suggests that the people who introduced this new law knew that there was something fishy about it. I am not sure what the right solution is, but this one does not feel right.

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