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Canadians living abroad have the right to vote. Here's why

There are about 36,000 Canadians currently living abroad who are eligible to cast their ballots in this federal election, according to Elections Canada. We look at the ins and outs of casting a ballot abroad.

Supreme Court of Canada decision allows people living internationally for more than 5 years to vote

Whether you live in Berlin or elsewhere outside Canada, you’re entitled to vote in the federal election regardless of how many years you stay abroad, according to the Supreme Court of Canada's 2019 ruling. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

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There are about 36,000 Canadians currently living abroad on the international register of electors, and they can cast their ballots in this federal election, according to Elections Canada.

The agency says there has been a surge of expats wanting to vote after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2019 that citizens living abroad for five years or more shouldn't be denied the right to vote. The legal decision means all eligible Canadians, no matter how many years they've lived abroad, can cast a ballot. 

Many have asked CBC News why non-residents are able to have a say in deciding the next federal government when they don't live in the country.

Is it fair to allow expats to vote?

Meghan McDermott — a staff lawyer of British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which issued a statement in January 2019 welcoming the court's decision — says it's certainly fair to give expats a vote, regardless of how long they've lived outside of Canada.

"Any kind of time frame for revoking those rights [for expats to vote] has been found to be arbitrary and not backed up by any kind of evidence of harm to the resident population that does live here in Canada," McDermott said.

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"It would be extremely unfair without having really good, compelling evidence as to how it's harming anybody in Canada. To violate that right would have … massive impacts and [be] disenfranchising those citizens who are abroad."

WATCH︱BCCLA's Meghan McDermott argues for expats' right to vote:

It's 'extremely unfair' to disenfranchise expats, says civil rights lawyer

1 month ago
1:28
Meghan McDermott, a staff lawyer at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says Canadians living abroad shouldn't be deprived of the right to vote regardless of how long they stay outside Canada. 1:28
 

Do expats pay Canadian taxes?

McDermott says there's no rational connection between paying taxes and having the right to vote.

"There are a lot of people right now who are friends and neighbours and community members who live here and who pay taxes to our governments … and they don't have voting rights," she said. "These are permanent residents, these are students here on a visa, refugees who are here.

"I would encourage those people [who question expats' right to vote] to start sticking up for and advocating for the other people who are contributing to our society and who still don't have the right to vote."

Allan Nichols — the founder and CEO of the Canadian Expat association based in Victoria, B.C., that intervened in the Supreme Court case — says it's fallacious to believe expats don't pay Canadian taxes.

"There are also many Canadians living in Canada who don't pay taxes," Nichols said. "We certainly wouldn't look at those individuals and say, 'You can't vote because you're not paying taxes.' … Of course, they still have the right to vote."

Are expats dual citizens capitalizing on Canadian benefits?

McDermott says she understands some people may be irritated when seeing expats coming and going to enjoy Canadian healthcare and other benefits, but their indignation can hardly translate into a legal argument for the government to limit expats' right to vote.

"Voting rights and citizenship … these are very strong rights, the cornerstone of democracy and an open and free society," she said. "It would be extremely disproportionate and extremely harmful to get out and attack those rights of those dual citizens."

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Nichols says expats rarely return to Canada for health-care services because of provincial residency restrictions on access to those services.

"If they happen to be getting ill, they're going to be treated abroad," he said. "If it is such a case where they do need to come back to Canada and seek healthcare, they're not eligible … right away."

The British Columbia government, for instance, requires that people must be living in the province for at least six months per year in order to qualify for medical coverage under its medical services plan.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2019 that citizens living abroad for five years or more shouldn't be denied the right to vote. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

How do expats have ties with their home ridings?

Nichols says it's incorrect to think Canadians living abroad are disconnected from home.

"I think the reason why people don't see that is just because they [expats] are often geographically located a long way away, so they don't see that connection," he said. "But in actuality, these communities — particularly those that are interested in voting — have a very strong connection with Canada.

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Nichols also argues that giving expats voting rights would encourage them to maintain connection with Canada.

"Canadians abroad are proud Canadians — they're educated, they're entrepreneurs, they're humanitarians, they're entertainers, they have the ability to influence the world for the better and to encourage Canadian trade," he said. "If we want Canadians to be further involved with helping Canada succeed, we need to encourage them further and not disenfranchise them."

How can expats vote?

Unlike people living in Canada, those living out of the country cannot choose to vote in-person in other countries on election day or at advance polls — Canadian diplomatic missions will not serve as polling stations.

Canadian citizens can only vote by mail while living abroad, and their marked ballot must arrive at Elections Canada in Ottawa by election day, Sept. 20

Elections Canada doesn't have offices outside Canada for expats to drop off their marked special ballots.

Expats should apply to be on the international register of electors in order to vote in the federal election. They must submit the application online, or have the completed PDF form delivered to Elections Canada by fax, mail or courier service, by Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. ET

A pedestrian prepares to enter Canada at the Rainbow International Bridge border crossing in Niagara Falls on Aug. 9, 2021. Canadians who wish to travel back home to vote in-person must show a negative COVID-19 test result and proof of full vaccination for the disease in order to skip the mandatory 14-day quarantine. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

For Canadians who wish to travel back home and vote in-person, they'll have to provide a negative result of a molecular COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before flight departure or entry to Canada's land border, and proof that they have been fully vaccinated for the disease, Health Canada wrote to CBC News. 

Failure to fulfil these travel requirements may subject them to a 14-day quarantine that bars them from going out to vote.


Do you have a question about the federal election? Send them to ask@cbc.ca or leave it in the comments. We're answering as many as we can leading up to election day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Winston Szeto

Journalist, CBC Kelowna

Winston Szeto is a digital journalist based in Kelowna, British Columbia. Send him tips via email winston.szeto@cbc.ca or Twitter @winstonszeto

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