Supreme Court set to rule on expat voting rights today

Canada’s top court will rule today on whether Canadians who have lived abroad for longer than five years should have the right to vote.

The case involves two Canadian citizens living in the United States for employment reasons who challenged the law after being denied the right to cast a ballot in 2011.

The law denying expats the right to vote after they have lived outside the country for five years was enacted in 1993, but it was not strictly enforced until the Conservative government of Stephen Harper took office.

Today’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling comes just weeks after the Liberal government passed legislation that overturns that limitation and guarantees all expats the right to vote, no matter how long they’ve been away.

Under Bill 76, which amends the Canada Elections Act, voters residing in other countries must only prove their identity and show proof of their previous address to determine the riding in which their ballot would be cast.

Lawyer Colin Feasby represented the Canadian Expat Association, which intervened in the case. He said the practical impact of a ruling in favour of the expats would not be as significant as it would have been without the legislation that just passed. But it would prevent a future government from taking away the voting rights of expats, or at least hinder it, he said.

A ruling against expat voting, however, would mean a future government could reinstate limits on expat voting.

Feasby said cases that ask the Supreme Court of Canada to consider issues that go to the heart of the democratic process don’t come along very often.

“The real value in this case is that the court is going to have to wrestle with issues that explore the nature of Canadian society and democracy and hopefully provide reasons that help us better understand what it means to be a citizen in a democracy,” he said.

“The reasons given by the court will provide material for political scientists and legal scholars to debate and may provide insight into other potential constitutional questions regarding the democratic process, such as youth voting.”

Expat advocates argued before the Supreme Court that the right to vote is guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is central to Canadian democracy and is a defining characteristic of Canadian citizenship. Denying them a vote was akin to treating them as second-class citizens, they argued.

The Attorney General of Canada had argued Parliament’s decision to limit voting for long-term non-residents is “a demonstrably justified infringement of the Charter right to vote.”

“One of its purposes was to maintain the fairness of the electoral system to the resident Canadian,” reads a legal factum filed with the Supreme Court. “The legal responsibilities of long-term non-resident citizens under Canadian domestic law are much less than the responsibilities of resident Canadians.”

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