Borderline Views: The right to vote abroad

There are clearly cases where it should be allowed, but this should be the exception rather than the rule.

By
May 3, 2010 21:28
Brown, Cameron and Clegg.

NBrown Cameron Clegg debate 311. (photo credit: NAssociated Press)

 
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The British elections will take place on Thursday. I have the right to vote in the UK but will not be exercising that right. Not because I don’t have a strong interest in the country of my birth, or because I don’t visit often, but simply because it is not my home. I chose almost 30 years ago to live in Israel, and this is the country where I work, pay taxes, send my children to school, national service, army and university. Despite my affection for the UK, Britain is not where I should be trying to influence the composition of the next government.

The phrase “no taxation without representation” was coined by Reverend Jonathan Mayhew in a 1750 Boston sermon to depict the situation in which Britain controlled the American colonies but did not allow the local citizens to take part in elections. Not that the situation was much better at the time in Britain itself, where those eligible to vote were but a small minority of aristocrats and landowners.

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Over time, the taxation principle, the growth of the working class and the eventual inclusion of women brought about the universal franchise – the right of every citizen over a certain age to participate in the vote – and this is practiced in all Western democracies.

But just as there should be no taxation without representation, there should also be no representation without taxation, especially for those who no longer reside in the country.

The situation is different for those who have spent their working life in one country and then emigrated to warmer climates or greener pastures after they retire. The same is true for many Diaspora Jews who have come to live here once they have reached pensionable age. They have spent their working life contributing to their country of residence and, in most cases, continue to receive a pension from that country.

There are also many residents of Israel who continue to manage companies in their countries of origin, or continue to pay taxes on their investments in foreign banks, or – as with many ex-Americans – continue to fill in their annual IRS forms and pay taxes as appropriate. In all of these cases, there is every reason why a person should be allowed to vote in more than one country – if that is their desire and if they feel their vote can actually influence the outcome of the election. But just because they were born in another country and then emigrated elsewhere before they made any meaningful contribution to that society does not justify the right to vote in more than one place.

THE GOVERNMENT is, once again, debating whether citizens living abroad should be allowed to vote in this country’s elections. It has traditionally been right-wing politicians who have supported this move, given the fact that it is estimated that the majority of Israelis residing abroad would vote for right-wing parties – the irony being that Diaspora communities (not only from Israel) tend to adopt harder and more “patriotic” positions concerning the situation “back home,” especially when there is a conflict involved.



While the taxation principle is an important one, there are additional factors at play. Many who choose to reside elsewhere have undertaken their military or alternative national service before emigrating. In some senses, this is the ultimate form of taxation paid to the state and, once undertaken, must never be disregarded. One would assume that they have no less right to vote than do immigrants who have only come here when they retired.

Given the 20-year tax-free status of new immigrants, most of them end up not having to pay tax, either in their country of origin or in their new country of residence. If they have the right to vote (and I am not suggesting they should be denied this right), then surely Israelis who have served in the army and now reside elsewhere should be allowed to, although it may be questionable as to just how long.

Unlike Israelis abroad, however, my ability to influence the result of the British election, even if I were to participate, is almost zero, given the “first past the post” electoral system with single member constituencies (electoral districts). Most of Britain’s relatively small Jewish community reside within three or four constituencies in north and northwest London and Manchester – in none of them do they constitute a majority of the voters, while these few constituencies are no more than a fraction of the 650 up for the grabs throughout the country.

BY CONTRAST, Israelis living abroad can greatly influence the outcome of elections given the nonconstituency, proportional electoral system which is used here. If the majority of 100,000 potential voters living abroad were to vote for a specific party, this could be translated into between one and three seats, which in a tight race between two or three major parties could result in one of them gaining the seats necessary to become the largest party and enable it to form the new government.


There is also the problem of the manipulation of the Law of Return by many Diaspora Jews, who could opt to take up their automatic right to citizenship, but choose to reside outside the country. Imagine for a moment if 100,00 members of the Chabad movement, known for its extremist right-wing views on issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict, were to take up their citizenship rights as olim, immediately return to the US or elsewhere, but insist on voting in the elections. Thus people who have no intention of living in the country could seriously sway the election result.

Voting while living abroad is not a black-and-white issue. There are clearly cases where it should be allowed, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. The British will manage their election quite happily without my vote, or that of about 30,000 other ex-Brits who live here today (10 percent of the entire Anglo-Jewish community). Equally, we in Israel can quite happily manage our own elections without the votes of those who have chosen to live and work elsewhere.

One man/woman, one vote, one country is quite sufficient.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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