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Three arguments in favour of non-citizen voting rights

By Susan Giblin - posted Wednesday, 15 April 2009

After the recent state elections in Queensland, these are some thoughts from a non-citizen. I am from Ireland, married to an Australian and having a wonderful time living in Brisbane. There is one thing which I am not permitted to do though and it is rankling with me. I cannot vote until I become a citizen. After arrival in Australia it takes four years until a person is eligible to apply for citizenship. When that application is processed and a person has become a citizen, they then have the right to vote.

Before accusing me of being a whinger I would like to express my deep appreciation at being able to live and work here. People are generally very friendly and welcoming, the life-style is great and the health system is second-to-none in my experience.

I suspect the general opinion is: "well of course you should be a citizen in order to vote". I would like to put forward a few arguments - in a friendly sort of way - in favour of non-citizens voting in the community in which they live.


My first thought when I realised I would be devoid of a vote was "didn’t this get sorted out with the Boston Tea Party more than 200 years ago?" At that time colonists in America became incensed by the fact that the British parliament was taxing them even though they had no representation in that parliament. "No taxation without representation" was their oft-quoted request.

Their slogan has since influenced political action all over the world. People have used the argument to advocate rights for those who are obliged to pay taxes but not permitted to vote. These have included, among others, men who did not own land, women, and indigenous people. The slogan was even used in the 1980s by Chinese farmers protesting against heavy taxes by the government in Beijing.

This issue has not yet been resolved in the United States, where protestors first gave voice to the perceived injustice. There are still millions of residents in America who have no right to vote. All the more reason to continue to raise the issue I say. As a resident here in Australia I pay taxes out of any wage I earn. Why then do I not have the right to vote?

My next point is that all over the world, laws and norms which have been considered acceptable and correct, with hindsight, come to be considered unacceptable and unjust. For more than 100 years after the Boston Tea Party women still did not have the right to vote. The first nation-state to extend the franchise to all citizens (men and women, Indigenous and non-Indigenous) was New Zealand. Eventually most other nation-states followed suit. In Australia up to 1962 Indigenous men and women did not have voting rights. In the United States violence and intimidation prevented African Americans from having the full freedom to vote until 1965.

Is refusing voting rights to residents who live and work in the community something we will look back on as unjust?

This leads to my final argument. This is in fact an argument made by Jamin Raskin in his influential 1993 paper entitled Legal Aliens Local Citizens: The Historical, Constitutional and Theoretical Meaning of Alien Suffrage. He argued that, globalisation in its many forms has extended economic rights so that it is possible for people to live and work outside the countries in which they were born. Political rights, however, have not been extended in the same way. These rights are still tied to the nation-state and to citizenship. Raskin calls it "the straight jacket of nation-state citizenship". The political rights, such as voting rights, need to catch-up with the economic and social rights so that people who live and contribute to a community, but do not yet have citizenship, still have the right to vote for political representatives.


In some countries there have been limited moves towards non-citizen voting rights. For example, in New Zealand, people who have lived there as permanent residents for twelve months and not left the country during that time, have the right to vote in all elections. In the Republic of Ireland, where I grew up, all non-citizen residents can vote in local (but not in national) elections. In Great Britain, Irish and Commonwealth citizens can vote in national and local elections.

During the recent election campaigns in Queensland the website of the Electoral Commission of Queensland stated that although most of us vote for many things throughout our lives, "the most important elections are those where we elect our political representatives". I am settling down happily in Australia and feel privileged to have the opportunity to live in this marvellous country. I already feel part of a community and am committed to that community. I would like to be able to contribute fully. If the most important elections are those where we elect our political representatives I would like to have the opportunity to take part sooner rather than later.

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About the Author

Susan worked as a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, UK from 2004 until 2008. Her research and teaching focused mainly on the politics and cultures of East and South East Asia.

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