NON-CITIZEN VOTING RIGHTS
In any democracy, the right to vote for one’s elected officials is fundamental. We don’t force anyone to vote but, with very few exceptions, a democracy gives its people the chance to cast a ballot. Generally speaking, there are three categories of people in Canadian society who are not allowed to vote for a local representative: children, people in jail, and non-citizens.
For more than ten years, I’ve been advocating for non-citizen voting in elections, a practice common to democracies all over the world. Many Canadians find the proposal startling and suspect, and they liken non-citizens either to children, who aren’t responsible enough to vote, or to incarcerated people, whose right to vote would erode the value of enfranchised people. We need to recognize the equal stake that newcomers have in our elections, and the basic injustice of denying them a voice in elections.
Non-citizen adults have as much stake in elections as citizens do. When we ask them to prove their stake by getting in a bureaucratic line and waiting years to be eligible to vote, we create a bogus hierarchy of civic investment. I earned my right to vote by being born in Canada, which was not my choice. When people come to Canada by choice, or are forced here for their own safety, they have as much investment in society as people who passively gained citizenship by being born in Canada.
Most of us become citizens and voters by default. The artificial act of saying we are more invested because of the accident of our birth is colonial, outdated, and unfair. We often uphold our privilege by suggesting non-citizens, like children, aren’t ready to take on the grown-up responsibility of voting. Children who are citizens automatically get the vote if they pass the test of staying alive until age 18. Non-citizens, on the other hand, remain as permanent children if they don’t pass a citizenship test that many Canadian-born people would surely fail. This “privilege has its privileges” approach is not only unfair and demeaning, it does nothing to improve elections or governance.
The other major and related argument I’ve heard in my years of campaigning for non-citizen voting is that it cheapens the vote of citizens. In this argument, which I liken to the disenfranchisement of people in jail or prison, voting is an exercise reserved for people of good moral character. In other words, we can’t trust criminals and non-citizens with a vote. They must demonstrate their commitment to our presumed shared values by being denied the vote for an arbitrary and non-standardized length of time, after which we no longer need to scrutinize their goodness.
Interestingly, the history of voting for both prisoners and non-citizens has been inconsistent. Prisoners in Canada are currently allowed to vote in federal and provincial elections, but not in municipal elections. For the majority of Canadian history, non-citizens have been allowed to vote in municipal elections if they were British subjects, but these same individuals were barred from voting provincially or federally. I attribute these inconsistencies to the equally fuzzy logic that a person’s right to vote should depend upon their social standing as a Good Person. Social participation is an inherent human need, and that need shouldn’t be subject to society’s shifting and inconsistent moral judgements.
There will always be people who want to pick and choose their ideal electorate. Prisoners only recently won the franchise in 2002 after the Supreme Court ruled that voting is a fundamental right. Similarly, people will continue to argue that lowering the voting age below 18 will be the death of us, even though minors can legally work, pay taxes, drive cars, and give testimony in criminal court. Privilege, they may well argue, must have its privileges.
But for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who can’t vote because they aren’t citizens, the privilege to exclude offers no collective benefits for our country. As I’ve cited elsewhere, the most honest case for disenfranchising non-citizens came from Liberal MP Peter Mitchell, who argued in parliament that “I would give to everyone who has assumed the same position as the white man, who places himself in a position to contribute towards the general revenues of the country, towards maintaining the institutions of the country the right to vote.” Mitchell said that in an 1885 debate on electoral reform - I’d like to think a country that prides itself on multiculturalism is ready to move on.