On Tuesday, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a federal law that says Canadian citizens who have lived abroad for more than five years cannot vote in a federal election.
We think the decision is the right one, for three reasons.
First, because our electoral system, based as it is on residence in a particular electoral district, assumes a connection between residence and voting, governors and the governed.
Second, because we live in a world of national borders and laws that do not apply extraterritorially, which means the lives of non-resident Canadians are largely not governed by Canadian law. As Ontario Chief Justice George Strathy put it, "permitting all non-resident citizens to vote would allow them to participate in making laws that affect Canadian residents on a daily basis, but have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives."
And third, because reasonable people can disagree, reasonably, over how long a citizen should reside outside of Canada before having her vote suspended. Should the limit be five years? Ten? Two generations? Never? The practical question of setting reasonable limits is best left where the Ontario Court of Appeal left it, in the hands of Parliament.
The Canada Elections Act says that Canadian citizens are entitled to vote in the riding in which they typically reside. However, the Act also says that Canadian citizens living abroad for more than five years cannot vote. There are exceptions for people sent overseas in service to the country, such as members of the Armed Forces.
All of which is not unreasonable. Justice Strathy noted that "residence is a determinant of voter eligibility in all provinces and territories." If you move from Nova Scotia to Alberta, you can't continue voting in Nova Scotia in perpetuity.
He also pointed out that "residence is a requirement of the electoral laws of the other Westminster democracies. The U.K., Australia and New Zealand limit the voting rights of non-resident citizens to those temporarily resident abroad." The maximum time overseas before one loses the vote is 15 years in Britain, six years in Australia and three years in New Zealand. Canada's current law is fair.