Let Canadians Vote!

Dedicated to giving all Canadians the right to vote,
regardless of their place of residence.

NEWS ‐ Constitutional challenge failed!

Two Canadians, Gillian Frank and Jamie Duong, went to court to restore their constitutional rights.

On May 4, 2014, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the law banning expatriates from voting by mail was in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and was of no effect.

Unfortunately, on July 20, 2015, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned this decision by a vote of 2-1. An appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada is being prepared.

Aren't all Canadian adults allowed to vote?

I thought so too.

Who isn't allowed to vote?

Canadian citizens who have lived outside the country for more than five years.

Even members of the military?

No. Those serving in the Canadian Forces or employed by a federal or provincial government, or the UN or other international bodies, are exempt from the five-year limit.

How is this enforced?

If a voter tries to download a ballot application from Elections Canada's web site, they will be asked their country of residence. If it is not Canada, they will be asked for the length of their residence abroad, and refused if it is more than five years. If the voter phones Elections Canada, they will be told the same thing.

Do you have to actually live in Canada? Wasn't the rule was you had to visit Canada every five years?

This was, in fact, Elections Canada's policy during the 2006 and prior elections; voters could register if they'd at least visited Canada within the past five years. Now, the agency is saying that interpretation of the law was incorrect.

How can the interpretations of the same statute be so radically different?

Beats me.  I'm still trying to get an answer for that one from Elections Canada.

Why should you be allowed to vote if you don't live in Canada?

Because the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says so.  Section 3:

3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.

Is that really fair?  If non-residents don't pay taxes, and don't live in Canada, why do they even deserve the right to vote?

Taxes are really a separate issue. There are low-income Canadian residents who pay little or no taxes; no one would consider taking away their right to vote.

Besides, there is nothing preventing Parliament from passing laws imposing taxes on citizens living abroad. As long as they hold Canadian citizenship, expatriates are still subject to Canadian law. Thus, it is undemocratic to deny them their constitutional right to vote, even if current law does not require them to pay taxes.

Parliament could theoretically even impose a special tax payable only by expatriates, and they wouldn't get to vote on it.

But why would an expatriate even care who wins a Canadian election?  You're not living here, what goes on here doesn't affect you.

But it does.  Expatriates are still bound by the laws of Canada.  Most have property or investments in Canada, most have family in Canada.  Many have worked and lived in Canada long enough that they may eventually be eligible for public or private pensions.  Many are considering the prospect of returning, and the types of opportunities available for them in Canada - heavily influenced by government policies - are a major factor in that decision.

More fundamentally, the act of voting is an act of expressing a belief in what type of society one wants Canada to be.  Those who have "left in the body but remained there in spirit" by retaining their citizenship, and who still care enough about Canada to vote, should be permitted to do so.

If Canada is good enough to vote in, why isn't it good enough to live in?

It is not a question of "good" or "bad".  It is a question of where each individual feels their own life goals and aspirations can best be met.  Canadians live abroad for a variety of reasons:
  • Many computer and engineering professionals are working in the industry's leading companies, of which there are more in the United States and Europe than in Canada;
  • Salaries in a number of professions requiring very specialized skills and education are significantly lower in Canada than in some other countries;
  • Canadians may have joined humanitarian efforts, often for the long-term, in developing countries;
  • In the scientific and medical fields, only a few of the world's leading research labs and institutes are found in Canada;
  • In the academic world, good tenure-track academic positions have until recently been much easier to find abroad than in Canada.  Canadian universities are overall as good as those of any other country, but it must be admitted that most of the very best, most highly specialized opportunities are found elsewhere.
  • Others have family ties in other countries, or may have married someone living abroad.
Leaving Canada, leaving one's family and friends behind, is often the hardest decision these individuals have had to make.  It doesn't mean that they don't love Canada, or have abandoned it; if they had, they would no longer care about the right to vote.

If someone goes abroad in search of a higher salary, then screw 'em, I say! Such a person is a traitor, not a voter.

The Charter of Rights also grants citizens the right to leave the country. To attempt to "punish" Canadians who have exercised that right by taking away another is fundamentally undemocratic.

As an aside, even someone convicted of high treason still has the right to vote, as do all prisoners.

Why don't you just come back to Canada instead of whining about not voting?

I might.  But that's not the point.

Voters must choose their elected officials.  Elected officials should not choose their voters.  It would otherwise be too easy for governments to help ensure their own re-election by ensuring that those less likely to vote for them are eligible.  If there is no right to vote, all sorts of arbitrary conditions could be imposed.

Isn't it tyranny if those outside Canada, not paying Canadian taxes, not receiving Canadian government programs, impose their view on those who do?

No.  An expatriate is still a Canadian, by right of birth or naturalization.  It is no more "tyranny" for them to vote than for any other individual.

The point is moot anyway; there were only about 10,000 overseas ballots cast in 2006 (when the rules were interpreted more lightly), out of nearly 15 million total cast.  That's not anywhere near enough to change election outcomes in even a single riding.

And again, there is nothing preventing Parliament from taxing non-resident citizens.  In some respects it already does - any income earned from RRSP withdrawals or other investments in Canada by a non-resident is taxable, as are sales taxes on visits to Canada.

I'm tired of immigrants coming to this country, staying just long enough to get citizenship, and going back to their home countries. We just had to spend $94 million to evacuate "Canadians of convenience" living in Lebanon! And now they want to vote too?

Once again, that's a separate issue.  We are talking about the right to vote, not the privilege of receiving emergency assistance or social services.

Furthermore, a majority of Canadian citizens living abroad were born in Canada. Almost half of expatriate Canadians are in the United States, not a major source of immigrants to Canada. Secondly, voting is not the same thing as spending money on an evacuation. Voting is a right; evacuation is a privilege.

Nothing stops the government of Canada from limiting or eliminating services for citizens living abroad, or charging them fees for it. That is within Parliament's powers under the Constitution. But it is not within Parliament's power deny the right to vote.

Expatriates are not permitted to use the Canadian health care system, send their children to Canadian public schools, or apply for unemployment or welfare assistance from Canada.  Nor should they.  But voting is different.

I still don't think Canada should allow dual citizenship.

That too is really a separate issue.  In any case, even Canadian citizens who hold no other citizenship are not permitted to vote in Canada when living abroad.  Usually, they are not permitted to vote in the other country either.

Do other countries allow non-residents to vote?

The United States has an extensive government program aimed at registering non-residents to vote and making sure they have timely access to forms and ballots.  Both major U.S. parties openly campaign abroad.  Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad each have a network of chapters across Canada to register and canvass the 750,000 U.S. citizens living there.  In 2004, John Kerry's sister openly campaigned for him in Canada.

During the 2007 presidential elections in France, the three major candidates opened campaign offices in Montréal, aimed at that city's over 30,000 French citizens.  

One particularly notable example is Iraq.  Not only were Iraqi citizens in Canada allowed to vote in that country's 2005 elections, but polling stations for Iraqi citizens were actually set up in Canadian cities, with special permission from Elections Canada.  Many of these emigrés had not set foot in Iraq in decades.  Yet Canada did not accord that right to its own citizens.  Similarly, Finland is placing polling stations in seven Canadian cities on April 6-9, 2011, for its elections.

There are countries with emigrant populations much larger than Canada's that allow overseas citizens to vote without restrictions, such as Italy, Poland, and Mexico.  So do Belgium, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Estonia, Japan, and New Zealand.  The complete list of countries has 97 names in it.

France, Estonia, and the Netherlands have gone so far as to set up voting over the Internet, to make it as easy as possible. 

France, Italy, and Portugal are among the 11 countries that go so far as to reserve seats in their parliaments for non-residents (the others are Algeria, Angola, Cape Verde, Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, Mozambique, and Panama).

Is there anyone else not permitted to vote?

At the time of the passage of the Charter of Rights in 1982, three other groups were not permitted to vote. All have been given that right by the Supreme Court of Canada:
  1. The mentally disabled;
  2. Federally-appointed judges;
  3. Criminals serving prison sentences.
This gives rise to the strange situation where the notorious serial murderer Paul Bernardo is allowed to vote, while a Canadian-born medical researcher trying to find a cure for cancer at Harvard is not.

So why hasn't the Supreme Court allowed non-residents to vote?

To our knowledge, no senior court has been asked to rule on this issue. Only in May 2012 was a formal constitutional challenge initiated to the law. See the news articles above.

Will this succeed?

I certainly hope so. It's not a fast process, however; it took over ten years of litigation before prisoners won the right to vote. The legal case is strong enough that it may yet happen.

What is the exact text of the law in question?

It is section 222 of the Canada Elections Act of 2000:


(1) The Chief Electoral Officer shall maintain a register of electors who are temporarily resident outside Canada in which is entered the name, date of birth, civic and mailing addresses, sex and electoral district of each elector who has filed an application for registration and special ballot and who
(a) at any time before making the application, resided in Canada;
(b) has been residing outside Canada for less than five consecutive years immediately before making the application; and
(c) intends to return to Canada to resume residence in the future.

(2) Paragraph (1)(b) does not apply to an elector who is
(a) employed outside Canada in the federal public administration or the public service of a province; (b) employed outside Canada by an international organization of which Canada is a member and to which Canada contributes;
(c) a person who lives with an elector referred to in paragraph (a) or (b); or
(d) a person who lives with a member of the Canadian Forces or with a person referred to in paragraph 191(d).

Does the law actually prohibit expats from voting, or only from voting by mail? Couldn't they physically visit Canada and show up at a polling station?


Elections Canada actually has told at least one person that they can vote in person at a polling station, provided they provide a proof of their address there more than five years ago. See the original French letter here and English annotated translation here.

Nonetheless, this raises almost as many questions as answers. Section 143 of the Elections Act requires either a single, Canadian government-issued piece of photo ID with name and address, or any two pieces of ID "authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer" that establish name and address.

Expatriates have a Canadian passport, but that doesn't provide proof of address. They may have had provincial drivers' licenses or health cards with their Canadian address, but these will have expired. Would those be accepted? Would poll workers across the country desperately phone the Chief Electoral Officer in Ottawa to verify this or that card?

The alternative is to have a Canadian resident vouch for you. The person vouching, however, can't just be a resident of Canada, not even just the riding in question - they have to be on the voters' list at the same polling station.

These are fairly strict requirements, and even for Canadian residents they have lowered voter turnout. You can see the drop in voter turnout in 2008, the first year this provision took effect.

Did the government use the "notwithstanding clause" to override section 3 of the Charter?

No.  It can't do that; section 3 is not subject to the notwithstanding clause.

Then doesn't that mean the Charter basically gives even young children the right to vote?

The courts have ruled that out based on section 1 of the Charter.

What does section 1 say?

1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

What exactly does "reasonable" mean?

The Supreme Court of Canada uses a definition often called the "Oakes test", made in the 1986 R. vs Oakes case.  In order to use section 1, the government must prove:
  1. Parliament's objective in limiting a Charter right must "relate to societal concerns which are pressing and substantial" in a free and democratic society.
  2. The means chosen to limit the right must be reasonable and demonstrably justified. Specifically,
    1. The measures must be not be arbitrary, and must be "rationally connected" to the objective;
    2. The means should impair the right as little as possible;
    3. The limit must be proportional to the objective.
So don't you think the residency requirement for voting passes the Oakes test?

Here you have only my humble opinion, and I am not a lawyer.  Still, I don't think the Oakes test can be passed here.

The only remotely plausible argument for the first requirement is that non-residents are less affected by the actions of Parliament than a resident is, and therefore should not have the right to vote.  As discussed above, this fails in the fact that non-residents are still subject to Canadian law, and many have family, friendship, financial, business, and other ties to Canada, and always have the right to return there.

Even if you conceded point 1, there is just no way part 2 of the test can be passed.  The measure chosen was arbitrary.  Not only is the five-year limit basically plucked out of a hat, but it has not even been consistently applied.  In 2006 visiting was the sole requirement; suddenly in 2008 it changed to residence.  This strikes back into the territory of the first part; ballots have been cast from overseas for many years, and there was little or no public outcry in Canada about it.  During that time, there is no evidence that overseas voters actually changed the outcome of an election, even in a single riding.  

The law also requires that even those living abroad less than five years "intend" to return to Canada.  In real life, most people can't possibly spell out their life plans well in advance just because Elections Canada wants them to. This requirement can't fail to qualify as "arbitrary".

Nor do the means impair the right as little as possible.  There are all sorts of halfway measures Parliament could have adopted:
  • Require non-residents to have visited Canada in the past five years.  That would still pretty much rule out so-called "Canadians of convenience".  Certainly the sky didn't fall when this was official policy. 
  • Require some form of ties to Canada; investments, property, bank accounts, family members.
  • Charge a "poll tax" payable only by non-residents - distasteful, but not as bad as eliminating the vote entirely.
  • Limit the vote only if the non-resident has actually taken up citizenship, or permanent-resident status, in the other country.
  • Require the voter to request an extension of their right to vote every year, as Australia does after the first six years of non-residence.
  • Have a longer time limit than five years.  The UK has a 15-year limit; Germany's is 25 years.
  • Allow at least full-time students to vote, as Malaysia does.  Doctoral programs are seldom finished in five years.
Just who the heck are you anyway, bub?

I'm a native-born Canadian living abroad for more than five years.  That's all that really matters, eh?  You can email me .

Ce site est-il traduit en français?

On en a! Voir ici.

What can I do to help?

The best way is to donate to the legal challenge underway. If you prefer an offline donation, you can find out how to do that at the plaintiffs' web site.

You can also write to your MP or your local newspaper back in Canada. Blog about it. . Tell your friends and family in Canada and abroad. If nothing else, join the Facebook group.

Donate to the Supreme Court challenge Join our Facebook group Sign our petition Tell your story on our Tumblr page

Text of the appeal court's ruling, and the dissent The plaintiffs' web site Register to vote at Elections Canada Text of the first court ruling Private members' bill to amend the law

Stories from expats on Tumblr Donald Sutherland in the Globe and Mail CBC interview with Gill Frank CJAD interview with Jamie Duong I am Canadian (Globe and Mail) Interview with the plaintiffs on CKNW Radio The right to vote should apply to all (National Post) Editorial in Halifax Chronicle-Herald Denying the vote is unfair (Toronto Sun) View from Canadians in Israel Canadians in the UAE Op-ed in rabble.ca Seven reasons for expats to vote Article by a constitutional expert Coverage of the first court ruling Huffington Post coverage Truro Daily News editorial Elections Canada Toronto Star editorial Toronto Star story

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