Reflecting and producing society through the right to vote

In May 2016 the UK’s highest court, the Supreme Court, upheld the decisions of the High Court and Court of Appeal, confirming that UK citizens who had been living outside the country for more than 15 years would be unable to vote in the EU referendum the following month. This decision came after two British citizens – one 94 year old man who, in 2016, had been living in Italy for 35 years, and one 54 year old woman, resident in Belgium for 29 years – challenged the 15 year limit on overseas UK citizens to vote.

The Supreme Court’s decision confirmed that around 2 million UK citizens were ineligible to vote in the referendum, despite being among the most likely to be affected by the result. Although the government has since claimed that it will set about scrapping the 15 year rule, this will not happen in time for the ‘snap election’ this coming June. Meanwhile, UK law means that around a million Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK (and Gibraltar), did have the right to vote in the referendum, and will again have the right to have a say in June. At the same time, EU citizens (without British citizenship) living in the UK were not entitled to vote in the referendum, regardless of residency.


Voting in Hackney, 2010. Photo by Alex Lee under CC license.

Reflecting society

The past few years have seen a series of elections and referenda on what are important national issues, ones with the potential to change the very state of the nation and to shape its future. Both the Scottish independence and Brexit referendum were about the nation, about who ‘we’ are and, perhaps more importantly, who we want to be. The electorate was constructed differently in each case in ways that reveal, to some extent, who and want is understood to constitute the nation. Notably, in Scotland only those resident in Scotland were able to vote and Scots living outside Scotland were denied a vote, reflecting a very particular construction of the Scottish nation.

In a recent keynote talk at the University of Sussex, Dr Blanca Garcés Mascareñas spoke about ‘deservingness’, asking who is perceived as deserving of rights. Citizenship is generally understood as ‘a status of membership in a particular political community that entails equal basic rights, legal obligations and opportunities to participate actively in political decision making‘. The right to political participation, to vote in elections (or to choose not to) is often assumed to part of being a citizen. Yet the reality is that not all citizens are able to vote and not all voters are citizens.

In some cases, the construction of the electorate needs to be read in its historical context. Therefore, while Garcés Mascareñas outlined how deservingness is based on family, residency, vulnerability, presence and employment, deservingness may also be based on historical and colonial connections. In what some have described, not un-problematically, as a ‘hangover from Empire, Irish and Commonwealth citizens’ rights to vote are linked to the histories of British imperialism.[i]

Many long-term residents and UK tax payers were unable to vote in the UK’s referendum as a result of their citizenship status, just as they are excluded from voting in General Elections. Some people born in the UK who had never lived anywhere else were also excluded from voting. As a friend with Italian citizenship, but who was born in the UK, recently complained, she is unable to vote in elections and referenda in the UK, where she understands things and is invested in the country’s present and future, but is able to vote in Italy, a country in which she has never lived and has no knowledge or interest in politics.

Producing society

While many more UK residents, and most notably EU citizens, are allowed to vote in local elections, being excluded from voting in national elections has enormous potential to affect an individual’s relationship with a country. Having your rights restricted to the local scale, for example, could be read as sign that you are part of the town or city, but not (and perhaps never) the country. And being denied a vote after 15 years outside the UK (5 in Canada, 25 in Germany, etc.) essentially cuts you off as someone no longer relevant, whose ties elsewhere are seen as mutually constitutive of material and emotional connections or investments ‘back home’.

Besides the very real effects that diasporas can have on election outcomes, the right of emigrant citizens to vote has an important impact on individual and collective identities, and feelings of belonging on different scales. Whether or not someone actually votes – and just because people can vote doesn’t mean that they do[ii] – having the right to vote is meaningful for feelings of identity and belonging. It reproduces the idea that your voice matters, that you have a role to play, that you (still) belong and have a stake in that society. For anyone who sees themselves as having a stake in society, the denial of a vote is emotionally significant.

The point is that whether or not someone have the right to vote not only reflects what society is (or thinks it is); it is actually productive of both society and nation.

External citizenship

In many countries, including the UK, governments are keen to maintain links with their citizens abroad. Whether for economic, development, political or cultural reasons, diasporas are valued by states across the world who want to tap into their resources or embrace lost members.

In the last year the UK, Irish and Canadian governments (and probably others) have all looked to expand the rights of overseas citizens. However, over-expansive emigrant citizen rights can also create problems, for example where there is an overrepresentation of ‘non-stakeholders’ in domestic politics as a result of external voting. In Ireland, which currently forbids almost all emigrant voting but has an enormous diaspora for its size, there are certainly fears about the effect that diaspora voting could have on domestic politics.

External citizenship requires a careful balancing act but, as increasing numbers of people live in countries to which they do not have citizenship and develop new and multiple ways of constructing identities in relation to collectivities, it is a balance that is only becoming more important.

The reality is that states now represent political communities that extend beyond their territorial borders, a phenomena Political Scientist Rainer Baubock calls external citizenship. What this external citizenship looks like varies from country to country, both in terms of the duties and obligations of citizens and the rights afforded to them, in ways that not only reflect but produce the national community of belonging.

Further reading

Ace Project. Voting from Abroad.

Driver and Garapich (2012) ‘Everyone for themselves’: Non-national EU citizens from Eastern and Central Europe and the 2012 London elections. Paper for the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties (EPOP) Conference, University of Oxford, 7-9 September 2012.

Finch, Andrew and Latorre (2010) Global Brit: Making the most of the British diaspora. IPPR. Available at:

Sigona, Gamlen, Liberatore and Kringelbach (Eds.) (2015) Diasporas Reimagined Spaces, Practices and Belonging. Oxford Diasporas Programme.


[i] The right to vote is reciprocal in the case of Ireland.

[ii] In the 2010 UK election only around 14,000 of the millions of British citizens living abroad registered to vote. Even in Brazil where of-age emigrant citizens must vote (Brazil has a system of compulsory voting which includes Brazilian emigrants), they do not necessarily do so.


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