The news that foreigners would not be allowed to vote in the planned EU referendum came as a bit of a shock earlier this week, if not as a major surprise. The rules are based on those for the General Elections. Besides, it seems the Tories are keen to exclude anyone from voting who might not agree with them on a possible Brexit, in particular EU migrants and younger people.
As an EU citizen I would have liked to see the UK government include us in the vote as we are most immediately affected. If Britain leaves the EU it is us who suffer most, as our movement, working rights, taxation arrangements, pensions, transfer of money and even family life might be affected. As EU citizens living in the UK are allowed to vote in EU and local elections here it would be only logical to let us have our say. But I was not holding my breath.
However, for me, this piece of news has opened another question on voting rights and citizenship and what these should be based on. To be sure, citizenship and voting rights are not the same. Even though they are not British citizens, Irish and Commonwealth citizens, including EU citizens from Malta and Cyprus, ‘over 18 who are resident in the UK’ along with Members of the House of Lords are also allowed to vote based on their special status or historic ties to Britain. On the other hand, British citizens who left the country 15 years or longer ago have lost their voting rights in the UK without automatically acquiring the franchise in their current country of residence thus leaving them completely disenfranchised.*
Defining the various historic ties and exceptions as reasons for giving (or declining) people the vote in an EU referendum is to an extent an arbitrary move. Reasons could clearly be found to extend the vote not just to all EU citizens, but to young people over the age of 16, or to people ordinarily resident in the UK. Likewise, we might wonder if voting rights should generally be based on residence or where we pay our taxes.
In some ways, this reminds me of the debates over the franchise during the English revolutionary period in the seventeenth century, when Cromwellians, republicans, Levellers and a variety of other people attempted to define what qualified an individual to vote. Each of these groups tried to find justifications for the franchise that matched their own interests.
Traditionally, only adult male property owners of freehold land worth 40 shillings or more were allowed to vote. Both Cromwellians and republicans wanted to maintain property qualifications, largely based on the ownership of land, while modifying the amount of property required. The Instrument of Government that established the Protectorate also provided for a redistribution of parliamentary seats to reflect population numbers, abolishing some of the anomalies allowing a few large landowners to select their favoured candidates. The Levellers argued for manhood suffrage disregarding wealth or income, with some even going as far as implying the possibility of votes for women.
Alas, at the moment, the tendency is towards narrowing, not extending the vote.
* This law is going to change over the next couple of years. However, the changes won’t be in place in time for the EU referendum.
Ireland has recently held a referendum, the outcome of which was widely celebrated. In many ways it was a model of how to reach a collective decision on a tough and divisive issue. And guess what? Voting was restricted to Irish citizens aged 18 and over.