Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Go and vote but can you? Dr Melanie Sully

Whilst some are not intending to vote in the upcoming Austrian parliamentary election, others would dearly love to but cannot. An analysis of different rules on the right to vote...

September 2013

The Right to Vote

Prof Dr Melanie Sully

In Austria sixteen year olds can vote but already many are wondering if they will. An alleged disenchantment is thought to be the reason why the turnout will be lower than average with young people. Studies show that a below average turnout in the last UK parliamentary election was detectable amongst the young. Whilst there are concerns of this supposed disinterest or lack of mobilisation, there are others who would dearly like to have the right to vote. This has been highlighted in the Austrian election campaign by some ex-pats from EU member states who have lived in the country for a long time but because they are not Austrian citizens do not have the right to vote. Many ex-pats resident pay taxes in the country they live in but are denied the chance to decide on politicians with taxation policies. To make matters worse, many eg those coming from the UK who left over 15 years ago, have in the meantime lost their right to vote in elections to the House of Commons. In effect they are disenfranchised and the victim of national laws which still lay down the rules for general elections.

In the past there have been different criteria for the right to vote, based on property, gender or taxation etc. In time it has become acknowledged that the right to vote should be extended to include as many as possible in the democratic process. In New Zealand once you have a resident permit and have lived in the country for a year in a two year period, you get the right to vote. New Zealand by the way was the first country to give the suffrage to women way back in the nineteenth century. However prisoners are denied the vote and a campaign is underway to change this by those who feel it is an unnecessary discrimination.

In the UK the same rule applies with electoral disqualification for prisoners, a controversial stance since it clashes with the European Court of Human Rights. Many however believe, including Prime Minister Cameron, that those in prison have forfeited this right since they have broken the law.

In the UK the suffrage varies according to the election held. For example next year in the Scottish referendum on independence EU citizens will be able to vote but those UK citizens living outside Scotland even if they are Scots, do not have this right. This is because the Scottish referendum is not a national one and a different franchise applies. This means a Scot living eg in Vienna cannot vote in the referendum but an Austrian living in Edinburgh can. Also for the Scottish referendum the franchise has been lowered to include sixteen year olds but this is not likely to be the case in future for parliamentary general elections.

However if it should come to a national referendum on whether the UK leaves the European Union then EU citizens living in Britain will not get to vote. UK citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens including those from the Irish Republic, Malta and Cyprus resident in the UK have a vote as do those living overseas so long as they have not left the British Isles for longer than 15 years. Before 1985 UK citizens living outside the country were not able to vote at all in general elections. The overseas voters were then recognised and the time limit was firstly just five years and subsequently raised to 20 but this was considered too long. The argument was that people would be out of touch with the political scene and were probably not intending to return to the UK and in the case of Australia or New Zealand, living at the other end of the World.

A British citizen living in Italy challenged the 15 year rule at the European Court of Human Rights but the court considered there was no violation of human rights (Art 3 of Protocol 1 the right to free elections). The Court concluded that 15 years was not an “unsubstantial period of time”.

The overseas vote could be important in national elections since there are key marginal constituencies and a single vote can make the difference between an MP going to Westminster or not. It is estimated that there are about three million ex pats who are eligible to vote in a UK election, mostly living in Spain, Australia and France. Very few of them, just over 20,000, however have registered partly because the procedure is complicated and required annually.

The right to vote cannot be taken for granted and has historically been something to fight for.

See also a continuation of the debate with reference to the European Parliament elections 2014. Press release of the European Commission on "Disenfranchisement: Commission act to defend voting rights of EU citizens abroad"