Civics, Feelings, and Politics

Expatriates’ alleged lack of connection to particular ridings is not a good reason to disenfranchise them

When it held, in Frank v Canada (Attorney-General), 2019 SCC 1 (summarized here), that denying the franchise to Canadians who have been resident abroad for more than five years is unconstitutional, did the Supreme Court go with “feelings over civics”? Did it decide the case in a way that ignores the fact that Canadians vote not for national parties but for candidates in local constituencies, to which expatriates are not meaningfully connected, even if they maintain, as the Court’s majority said, a “profound attachment” to Canada? Over at Routine Proceedings, Dale Smith argues that that’s precisely what the Court did. I disagree.

As Mr. Smith sees it, “five of seven justices of the Supreme Court failed to properly understand the importance of constituency-based democracy”. He also faults the government’s lawyers “for not making the case adequately either”, “and virtually all of the commentary” on Frank, including presumably my comment, for ignoring the issue. Yet in his view, it ought to have been a decisive consideration:

[W]e vote for local representatives. We don’t vote for parties, or party leaders, no matter what we may have in mind when we go into the ballot box – we mark the X for the local candidate, end of story. For an expat, it’s not the connection to Canada that should be at issue – it’s the connection to the riding, because that’s how we allocate our votes.

One might, of course, reproach the government lawyers for failing to emphasize this particular rationale for disenfranchising Canadians abroad. The Frank majority, even on this view, is blameless, because it wasn’t at liberty to sustain the disenfranchisement on the basis of a justification that the government did not even put forward. Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that limits on Charter rights, including the right to vote, must be “demonstrably justified” ― and as the Supreme Court has long held, it is the government that must carry out the demonstration. But there are other reasons, based in both what we might (loosely) call civics and feelings, as well as some realism about politics, that mean that, had the government chosen to make connection to the riding as the hill its case would die on, this case would be every bit as dead as it now is.


Start with the civics. Mr. Smith is quite right that, in point of law, we vote for local representatives, not for national parties or their leaders. Whether this ought to matter as much as he suggests, I will discuss below, when I turn to politics. But it’s important to consider a couple of other legal issues.

First, though there seems to be a good deal of confusion or even obfuscation on this point, the Canada Elections Act already takes care of the need for a connection between a Canadian voting from abroad (who may be a short-term expatriate, a long-term one previously allowed to vote, such as a diplomat’s family member, or a newly-enfranchised long-term expatriate). Paragraph 223(1)(e) provides that, when applying to be registered as an elector resident outside Canada and requesting to vote by special ballot, a would-be voter must provide the Canadian address to which his or her vote will be tied. Once the choice has been made, section 224 prevents the voter from changing it. This prevents forum shopping, as it were, and seems a sensible regulation.

Now, there is a range of options for the prospective voter from abroad to choose from:

the address of the elector’s last place of ordinary residence in Canada before he or she left Canada or the address of the place of ordinary residence in Canada of the spouse, the common-law partner or a relative of the elector, a relative of the elector’s spouse or common-law partner, a person in relation to whom the elector is a dependant or a person with whom the elector would live but for his or her residing temporarily outside Canada.

It has been put to me that the breadth of this range is excessive and gives the elector too much choice. If Parliament agrees, it can eliminate some superfluous options by legislation; this should not be constitutionally problematic. But I don’t think that Parliament should do this. On the contrary, giving the voter the ability to tie his or her vote to a former residence or a family member’s one makes it more likely that the elector will choose to vote at the particular place in Canada to which he or she is feels the strongest connection, which will not be the same for all expatriates, and which each voter is much better positioned to figure out when registering than Parliament when legislating.

Second, one must keep in mind that when it comes to voters in Canada, the law does not require any sort of evidence of a connection between the voter and his or her riding other than the fact that the voter resides there. Perhaps that’s because residence is simply deemed to be determinative of the community to which the voter belongs. But this seems a very rough assumption, especially in today’s urbanized world, in which many ridings are quite compact and the boundaries between them, fluid. A voter might be live in a bedroom community or a residential neighbourhood, but work in a downtown in a different riding, and perhaps have other attachments in yet a third one. It is, to say the least, not obvious which of these the voter is genuinely connected to. Residence, arguably, is only the most easily administrable way of sorting voters into ridings (both at the point of counting them through the census and at the point of registering them), simply because it tends to be more stable than other connections. As Chief Justice Wagner, writing for the Frank majority, put it, “residence can best be understood as an organizing mechanism for purposes of the right to vote”. [28] It is nothing more than that.


This brings me to what Mr. Smith might calls “feelings”. He and others who defend the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad are very quick to demand that expatriates meet conditions that are not imposed on other Canadians to qualify for the franchise. Whether it be some subjective connection to a riding or to Canada as a whole, or knowledge about the local state of affairs, or tax liability, or subjection some undefined but substantial number laws, not all residents will meet these conditions that are said to justify denying the franchise to expatriates. But no one thinks to inquire into whether they really do, and no one, I’m pretty sure, would accept (re-)introducing tests of this nature into our election laws. Expatriates are the only people whom people judge on such criteria.

Indeed, it is not so much a judgment as prejudice. Expatriates are simply assumed to fail such tests ― and arguments to the contrary are dismissed as “feelings”. Mr. Smith guesses that Canadians who live abroad cut themselves off from communities where they used to live, or have family, or intend to return (or all of these things). Why? My personal experience, for what that’s worth, is that I keep up with the news from Québec and Montreal (and occasionally write on Québec-specific issues), more than from other provinces. Do I specifically track the news for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount, where my parents live and I will vote in October, if I can be bothered? Not particularly, but then again, I wouldn’t even if I actually lived there. To say that I’m not a suitable voter for this reason would be applying a groundless double standard.

And speaking of double standards (and, I suppose, of civics), it’s worth noting that pursuant to section 222 of the Canada Elections Act some long-term expatriates are already allowed to vote: namely, members and employees of the Canadian forces, federal provincial public servants, employees of “international organization[s] of which Canada is a member and to which Canada contributes, as well as anyone who “lives with” such voters. The rationale for this is, presumably, that all such persons ― not just public servants, mind you, but their family members too ― are deemed to maintain a connection with Canada that other expatriates lack. Yet even assuming that this is so, is it remotely plausible that such persons (who, if anything, probably tend to be more mobile than the average voter even when they live in Canada) maintain their special connections to their home ridings? I really don’t think this is plausible, and so, the invocation of the riding connection as a justification for disenfranchising some, but not all, expatriates is another sort of unwarranted double standard.


Let me finally turn to politics ― and, specifically, to the need to be realistic about it. If we want to understand the rules of elections and government formation in Canada, we must keep in mind that each voter only casts a ballot for a local representative, not (directly) for a party or Prime Minister. But if we want to figure out whether Parliament is justified in preventing a person or a class of persons from voting, I don’t think it makes sense to pretend, as Mr. Smith asks us to, that this is all that matters. The reality, as he more or less acknowledges, is that what we “have in mind when we go into the ballot box” ― or at least the voting booth, for the less acrobatic among us ― very much has to do with parties and, especially, their leaders, for most voters.

Political parties themselves know this. The big ones tried to prevent to keep the small ones from getting their names on ballot papers, until the Supreme Court wisely put an end to that in Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General), 2003 SCC 37, [2003] 1 SCR 912, because candidates not identified with parties get fewer votes. They give pride of place to party names, logos, slogans, and leaders in their advertisements. They make sure their MPs have lookalike websites in party colours. Local candidates are often little more than props for a leader’s tour. I’m too lazy to look for the relevant research (if it exists) right now, but as a not-so-wild guess, I’m inclined to think that many voters don’t even remember the name of their local candidate when they go vote. This may be regrettable, but the parties themselves have ensured that it doesn’t matter; what does matter is the party identification on the ballot paper.

One key reason for this is that election campaigns are largely national events, not local ones. (By way of thought experiment, imagine we didn’t hold simultaneous general elections, but renewed the House of Commons with staggered elections, one riding at a time. Our politics may well be quite different ― and more local. But of course we don’t do that.) The centrality of leaders’ personalities to election campaigns makes this unavoidable, and an even starker phenomenon than in the past. But even to the (limited) extent that voters are preoccupied with actual issues rather than personalities, the issues are largely national in scope. This is perhaps especially the case in federal elections, since Parliament’s powers are, by design, largely those that concern the country as a whole. Admittedly Parliament doesn’t always keep to its jurisdiction. Even when it does, Justice Rowe points out in his concurring reasons that “federal policy can impact different geographically defined communities in different ways”. [89] Still, federal elections aren’t about the quality of your local school or the regularity of garbage removal from your street. Most voters, especially in federal elections, just aren’t especially concerned with riding-level matters. To say that expatriates, and only expatriates, ought to be disenfranchised because they aren’t is, once again, to apply an unwarranted double standard.


The existing law already ensures that Canadians voting from abroad cast their ballots in the ridings to which they have the strongest connections. At the same time, it does not require the existence of a very meaningful connection between any voters, including those resident in Canada, and their ridings. The idea that expatriates should be prevented from voting because they lack such a connection is thus a double standard. Moreover, Canadian elections, especially federal ones, aren’t local affairs anyway. For all these reasons, had the government argued that Parliament was entitled to deny expatriates the franchise because of their supposed detachment from the ridings in which their votes would be counted, it would have fared no better than it actually did in Frank.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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