How long should a Canadian expatriate be able to vote in a Canadian federal election, after having lived for some years outside the country? It's a question on which reasonable people can reasonably differ.
Last month, Justice Michael Penny of the Ontario Superior Court struck down the current five-year limit (with exceptions such as for soldiers serving abroad), without setting any other limit. The federal government is taking the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal. It touches on basic questions of what voting and politics are about. An eventual judgment of the Supreme Court would be welcome.
Canada's Charter of Rights says that every citizen has a right to vote – but that right, like other rights, may be subject to "reasonable limits." The Constitution also says that Canadians vote in electoral districts, according to the principle of representation by population, when we choose members of the House of Commons. Expatriate voters do not fit readily into that structure.
In a procedural decision in this case this week, Justice Robert Sharpe of the Ontario Court of Appeal, put the issue clearly: Is the five-year limit "necessary to sustain our geographically determined, constituency-based system of representation?" The highest court will eventually have to answer that question. We think it can reasonably answer "yes."
Parliament, especially the Commons, since its beginnings in medieval England, has been a body that consents to – or rejects – taxes. But Canadian expatriates pay their taxes in the country where they live, and receive the benefits of government there, too. They do not pay taxes here, or receive most public services. It is reasonable for the law to say that, if you live outside Canada for a sufficiently long time, after some number of years you can no longer exercise the right to vote for members of the House of Commons. You do not lose Canadian citizenship – that can never be taken away. And no matter how long someone lives abroad, they have the absolute right to return to Canada whenever they wish.
The five-year limit is not strictly necessary. But there's a compelling logic to placing some limit on how long one can live abroad and still vote in Canada. It makes it more likely that Canadian voters will have a strong, living connection to Canada.