I was leaving my flat in Cambodia for the last time and was wearing my heavy woolen kilt to reduce flight luggage weight. As I was stepping into my friend’s tuk tuk, a car stopped and an American asked me whether I had voted. It was the day of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.
I was unable to vote in that referendum because I was not living in Scotland at the time of the referendum, despite having been born and bred in Scotland and a citizen of the UK. Most foreigners found this instinctively strange, and maybe even wrong that I was being denied a vote in my country’s future. This feeling only heightened when I explained that people from other countries living in Scotland at the time could vote. A Cambodian student living in Scotland could vote on Scotland’s future but a Scottish man living in Cambodia could not.
Whilst many people may believe, or at least unquestioningly accept, that people voting in elections is the best way to form a government, people do not often consider the rules for who should be able to vote. This lack of consideration creates surprise amongst people when they hear that other democracies have different ways of deciding who can vote and who cannot, as if the way that their country organized it was the only possible form of democracy.
Of course, there have been historically significant debates about who gets to vote that have happened in most democracies that led to women and people of colour being able to vote. In Australia, it was in the 1960s that Aboriginal people were allowed to enroll at the federal level to vote and not until 1983 did it become compulsory for them to vote as it was for other Australian citizens.
In Australia, only citizens are allowed to vote meaning that of the 24 million people living in Australia, only 15 million or 63% are eligible to vote. Of the UK’s 65m population, nearly 47m are eligible to vote (72%). Not being a citizen of Australia, I am not able to vote. Nor, was I able to vote in Cambodia as I was not a citizen and it is very rare for a white foreigner to be granted citizenship there.
Athens and other Greek city-states are often cited as the birthplace of democracy, but it was restricted to men who were not foreigners or slaves. The Great Reform Act of 1832 in the UK meant that many more men were able to vote by reducing the level of wealth to be required to vote. The link between wealth, tax and representation was at the forefront of the wars of independence that led to the USA becoming separate from the UK. Americans believed it was an infringement on their rights to be paying tax created by a UK government in which they had no representation.
That argument still seems pretty strong to me and would mean that anybody paying income tax should certainly be able to vote. As people have become more mobile and are more likely to live in a country other than their birth, somebody paying income tax may not be a citizen. And indeed, as the system of taxation has changed, the system of deciding who should vote should change too.
In Australia, like most other countries, there is a tax paid on most goods or services purchased. In Australia, this is the General Sales Tax and is 10%. In the UK, it is called Value Added Tax and is predominantly 20% of sale price. This means that even somebody paying no income tax, including international students living in Australia, can be paying thousands of dollars in tax but don’t have a say in how that is spent. This is taxation without representation.
Considering these things, it seems abundantly fair that anybody living in Scotland, including people who may not consider themselves Scottish, were able to vote in the Scottish referendum. They had chosen to live there, were paying taxes and would be greatly affected by the result. I, on the other hand, had chosen to live elsewhere, was not paying any taxes and would be less affected by the result.
What some people felt was unfair for me was that I am Scottish, even if not a resident of Scotland, and this nationality should qualify me to vote. Even if I am not paying taxes, I am invested in the country in other ways through identity, kinship and attachment to places. However, legally, I am not Scottish. I was born in Scotland and Scotland is a nation, but it is not a State – it is part of the UK so legally I am a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My passport does not say I’m Scottish, it says I am British.
Because of this, it becomes very difficult to judge who is Scottish and who is not. I have a friend who was born in England but has spent his whole life in Scotland and still lives there. Would he be considered Scottish? The American who spoke to me in Phnom Penh had Scottish ancestry and told me that he hoped Scotland would be free at last. Would he be considered Scottish?
The limitation with basing who should vote on whether you pay tax or not is that it characterizes the relationship between citizen and state as an economic transaction, whilst for most people, the country they are living in has much greater meaning than that. Cambodia, and now to an extent Australia, has greater meaning to me than just a country I paid taxes in. I am invested in the future of these countries, just as I am in the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom. It is because of this notion, that I am able to vote in the UK elections as an overseas elector. I am legally British and can therefore vote.
In some ways, Australia has an open approach to deciding who can vote. People who hold dual citizenship can vote, whilst some countries would see this as a risk; a person could try to undermine a country due to a greater loyalty to another. This is a rationale for countries like India not allowing dual citizenship and people holding a second passport to be able to vote.
The Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, recently talked about Australian values and Australia’s democracy was mentioned as part of this. He raised this issue because he wants foreigners living in Australia to adopt Australian values and prove it so. He wants them to prove their commitment to Australia, however being able to vote could be seen as a way of building commitment, of building connection, duty and responsibility to Australia. It is not ridiculous to think that if you have a say in something, you are more invested in it.
Australia’s conception of democracy has obvious restrictions and is exclusive rather than inclusive. It also has the rare characteristic of being compulsory. People have to vote and are fined if they don’t. Whilst that may appear undemocratic, such a system makes it far more likely that those eligible to vote are registered to vote. The difference between the two is most often highlighted in the USA where there are some 20million eligible people not registered to vote for a variety of reasons, including questionable barriers, and it affects millions in the UK too. It has even affected me in this latest election.
After being unable to vote in tumultuous Cambodian elections; watching a nailbiting Australian election from the sidelines; I now sit and watch a UK election unfold without me. Although I am registered, my proxy nomination expired without me knowing about so I am unable to vote. The kick in the teeth? This very morning, I got a letter from UK Revenue and Customs demanding taxes paid for when I was volunteering in Cambodia for 2.5 years. I’m not paying until I get my vote back.