In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Extension of Voting Rights to Emigrants

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Literature
  • The Normative Debate
  • Special Emigrant Representation in National Parliaments
  • The Role of Political Parties and Elite Interests in Enfranchising Emigrants
  • Main Databases

Political Science Extension of Voting Rights to Emigrants
Nicolas Fliess, Eva Østergaard-Nielsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0335


Emigrant voting rights can be broadly defined as the right to vote in elections granted to citizens who reside outside their country of citizenship. States offer different ways for emigrants to cast their vote, such as voting via post, in person in diplomatic missions, or upon physical return to the country. That said, research on emigrant enfranchisement has mainly focused on the voting practices that allow citizens to cast their ballot from abroad. Voting from abroad is not a new phenomenon. Several countries had already granted external voting rights by the beginning of the 20th century. However, these countries tended to restrict such voting rights to temporarily absent citizens with specific professions, such as diplomatic staff, soldiers, or seafarers. Only after the 1950s, states began to develop a more inclusive approach toward granting electoral rights to their nonresident citizens. Currently, more than two-thirds of all countries in the world allow voting from abroad. The majority of these countries have adopted external voting only during the last thirty years. Since the early/mid-2000s, the issue of external voting has attracted more intense scholarly attention. From a theoretical perspective, external voting rights challenge the traditional link between citizenship and territoriality and raise questions about how the relationship between states and nonresident citizens changes in times of mass migration and globalization. Today, the research on emigrant voting rights is a research field in its own right and informs related lines of scholarly inquiry on sending state policies, the political behavior of mobile citizens, the impact of the extraterritorial vote on domestic politics, and the cross-border outreach of political parties. In this article, the main contributions to the field of emigrant enfranchisement are divided into four main sections based on the chief four waves of research. It begins with the normative debate, followed by studies of why states grant emigrant voting rights. Third, studies on the creation of special emigrant representation systems are presented. Finally, works that move beyond the state as the main unit of analysis are reviewed by unpacking the role political parties play in the enfranchisement process. Overall, studies have drawn most prominently on the concepts of citizenship and transnationalism for theory building and their research designs. The rapidly growing literature on the consequences of emigrant enfranchisement, notably emigrant electoral participation and its impact on homeland politics, has not been included here.

Foundational Literature

The research on emigrant enfranchisement can be roughly organized into four waves. The first wave saw primarily political philosophy and law scholars engage with the topic of emigrant voting. These works discuss the normative aspects of whether nonresident citizens should be entitled to vote at all. An early work, Bauböck 2007 closely tied these debates to other suffrage trends, such as local voting rights given to resident noncitizens. The second wave involved anthropologists, sociologists, and, more recently, political scientists. These studies unpack which states enfranchise their citizens abroad and why they do so. Voting from Abroad: The International IDEA Handbook (Ellis, et al. 2007) contains the first comprehensive data collection on external voting on a global scale. The volume has been extensively used by scholars ever since. Collyer and Vathi 2007 provides an important theoretical conceptualization of external voting rights and is one of the first studies to systematically analyze why states grant external voting rights. These works demonstrate that external voting had globally become common practice. Lafleur 2013 offers an excellent entry into the relevant academic debates. Moreover, the book contains a thorough analysis of the external voting law-making process in Italy and Mexico. An edited volume Dufoix, et al. 2010 follows a comparative case-based approach in tracing the evolution of external voting across different countries. Spanish-language readers can consult the edited volume Calderón Chelius 2003. The third wave of studies emphasize the nuances in enfranchisement modalities and investigate in more detail how and why states restrict the exercise of voting rights in practice. Hutcheson and Arrighi 2015 focuses on European Union (EU) member states. The authors use the GLOBALCIT database (see Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT) [cited under Main Databases]). Palop-García and Pedroza 2019 concentrates on Latin America and the Caribbean, and the authors use the EMIX data set (see Pedroza and Palop-García 2017 [cited under Main Databases]) and Wellman 2020 examines transnational voter suppression in sub-Saharan Africa. The author uses the EVRR data set (see Allen, et al. 2020 [cited under Main Databases]). A final wave of studies focuses on the individual institutional actors involved in the enfranchisement process, most prominently political parties. Østergaard-Nielsen, et al. 2019 scrutinizes the positions and statements of European parties in parliamentary floor debates concerning the enfranchisement of emigrants. Wellman 2020 analyzes how the relationship of incumbent parties to the diaspora affects their willingness to organize inclusive elections abroad. By and large, research has favored qualitative methods to collect and analyze data; however, recently political scientists have started building large-N data sets for quantitative analysis.

  • Bauböck, Rainer. “Stakeholder Citizenship and Transnational Political Participation: A Normative Evaluation of External Voting.” Fordham Law Review 75.5 (2007): 2393–2447.

    The article discusses the normative arguments for and against the extension of electoral rights in relation to multiple nationality, denizenship, ethnizenship, coerced migration, and the potential impact of the vote. Bauböck’s concept of “stakeholder citizenship” suggests active suffrage should be extended to those citizens abroad whose future well-being is linked to their political origin community. This includes temporarily absent citizens and migrants forced abroad due to conflict but excludes generations born abroad without prior residency.

  • Calderón Chelius, Leticia. Votar en la distancia: La extensión de los derechos políticos a migrantes, experiencias comparadas. Mexico City: Instituto Mora, 2003.

    This edited volume features seventeen case studies (thirteen Latin American and Caribbean countries, Spain, Portugal, Canada, United States). The chapters are organized in three main thematic sections: States that enfranchise emigrants, states that discuss such enfranchisement for the near future, and states without a debate. The book offers an introduction to the topic and the main scholarly debates for readers of Spanish. Many of the countries have modified their electoral system since 2003.

  • Collyer, Michael, and Zana Vathi. Patterns of Extra-Territorial Voting. Working Paper T22. Brighton, UK: Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty, 2007.

    Based on an original survey of electoral institutions around the world, the paper presents one of the first systematic and comprehensive assessments of external voting practices worldwide (together with Ellis, et al. 2007). The paper creates a typology of external voting organization within legislative elections and argues that remittances and diaspora size cannot explain the motivation of states to grant external voting rights. The authors argue that the state-diaspora relationship is a more important factor.

  • Dufoix, Stéphane, Carine Guerassimoff, and Anne de Tinguy. Loin des yeux, près du coeur: Les États et leurs expatriés. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2010.

    DOI: 10.3917/scpo.dufoi.2010.01

    This edited volume provides an extensive overview of emigrant suffrage around the world for readers of French. The introduction links the motivation of countries to grant expatriate voting rights to the dynamics of different nation state formation processes. It locates this discussion within the broader political philosophy literature.

  • Ellis, Andrew, Carlos Navarro, Isabel Morales, et al. Voting from Abroad: The International IDEA Handbook. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2007.

    This handbook offers an easily accessible, practical introduction to the topic. It adopts a global perspective, covering all countries in the world (although each one to a different extent) and provides an overview of the different electoral systems, voting modalities, and scope of enfranchisement practices. The volume approaches emigrant voting from legal, logistical, and political perspectives.

  • Hutcheson, Derek S., and Jean-Thomas Arrighi. “‘Keeping Pandora’s (Ballot) Box Half-Shut’: A Comparative Inquiry into the Institutional Limits of External Voting in EU Member States.” Democratization 22.5 (2015): 884–905.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2014.979161

    This study centers on two arguments. First, states have practical reasons to restrict access to external voting to avoid external votes changing election results. Second, the normative reasons imply emigrants should have a lesser say in home country politics because they have fewer stakes. The access to suffrage in the homeland interacts with population size, the citizenship law, residence requirements, registration procedures, and modes of representation.

  • Lafleur, Jean-Michel. Transnational Politics and the State: The External Voting Rights of Diasporas. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203077283

    This book presents a comprehensive overview of the relevant academic debates and provides an in-depth analysis of various aspects of external voting, most prominently the motivation of states to grant transnational electoral rights (chapter 2) using Mexico (chapter 3) and Italy (chapter 4) as case studies. The other chapters include a comparative analysis of emigrants’ electoral behavior, transnational electoral campaigns, and special emigrant representation.

  • Østergaard-Nielsen, Eva, Irina Ciornei, and Jean-Michel Lafleur. “Why Do Parties Support Emigrant Voting Rights?” European Political Science Review 11.3 (2019): 377–394.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1755773919000171

    This study focuses on political parties as central actors in the enfranchisement process and provides a systematic analysis of the position of parties toward external voting and how they frame their arguments based on a comprehensive parliamentary debate analysis across thirteen European countries. The analysis demonstrates that incumbent parties and more conservative parties are the most likely ones to support emigrant suffrage in Europe.

  • Palop-García, Pau, and Luicy Pedroza. “Passed, Regulated, or Applied? The Different Stages of Emigrant Enfranchisement in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Democratization 26.3 (2019): 401–421.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2018.1534827

    The authors distinguish between three different stages of the enfranchisement process: (1) passing the law, (2) regulating the law, and (3) applying the law in practice. Based on data from fifteen Latin American and Caribbean countries between 1965 and 2018, the analysis identifies significant differences in the timing of the first two steps, which the authors explain with contestation dynamics drawing on four case studies (Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru).

  • Wellman, Elizabeth Iams. “Emigrant Inclusion in Home Country Elections: Theory and Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa.” American Political Science Review 115.1 (2020): 82–96.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055420000866

    This study argues that incumbent parties restrict or encourage emigrant voter access depending on their expectations to gain votes from abroad. The author uses original time-series data and builds on a comprehensive multimethod approach. First, the analysis leverages the within-case variation of diaspora enfranchisement in South Africa to illustrate how partisan dynamics impact voter access abroad. Second, an original data set is used to validate this partisan pattern for other sub-Saharan African countries.

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