Expatriates are people who left their country of citizenship voluntarily for personal reasons (or children of such people). This means that, while they may return, they are currently abroad. Whatever new laws are voted in in their home country mostly do not affect them in any way, with the exception of maybe some short visits. Yet when they are able to vote, their voice counts as much as the voice of someone actually living in the country.

What is the justification for an expatriate having democratic rights in their home country even after leaving it?

  • 1
    I think this is going to be mostly opinion. My opinion: most laws don't have a direct, individual effect on us. So that doesn't seem like a good argument to not let expats vote.
    – user1530
    Apr 21 '17 at 21:20
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    "who is a nation?" Is quite possibly better placed in philosophy. I understand some nations do or have disenfranchised or revoked citizenship of expatriates.
    – user9389
    Apr 21 '17 at 22:02
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    @notstoreboughtdirt I did not ask "who is a nation?" nor is my question any philosophic.
    – Bregalad
    Apr 21 '17 at 22:07
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    @DJohnM resident aliens are taxed and cannot vote; people may lose their voting rights and yet that does not exclude them from paying tax. Even tourists pay taxes like the sales tax! The "no taxation without representation" was just a propaganda lemma. And in many countries expatriates do not pay taxes
    – SJuan76
    Apr 22 '17 at 0:21
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    You might not realise it but you did kind of ask “what is a nation”. I know no countries which systematically allows voting based strictly on residence. Most places reserve that to citizens. So people can vote because they are deemed (under some rather arbitrary rules) to belong or be bound to the country, not merely because they are going to be personally impacted. And I am not aware of any overarching attempt to “justify” that, you would have to look at a specific time and place to find arguments one way or the other.
    – Relaxed
    Apr 22 '17 at 7:31

Legal framework in the US

The right of expatriates to vote was established by the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act (OVCRA) (1976).

The statutes enacted by OVCRA were later consolidated with some other voting statutes by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) (1986). The relevant parts are codified today at 52 U.S.C. s. 20301-20311.

The subsections most relevant to your question are 52 U.S.C. s. 20302(a)(1):

Each State shall permit absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters to use absentee registration procedures and to vote by absentee ballot in general, special, primary, and runoff elections for Federal office.

and the definition of "overseas voter" at 52 U.S.C. s. 20310(5)(B):

a person who resides outside the United States and is qualified to vote in the last place in which the person was domiciled before leaving the United States.

This requirement for states to permit expatriates to vote does not extend to citizens that have never resided in the US. Regardless, some states offer that privilege anyway, dependent on other conditions that vary from state to state.

Justifications given in the House of Representatives

Some motivations for the original OVCRA were given during congressional floor debate on December 10, 1975. (121 Cong. Rec. 39,731-39,737)

Representative Hays:

We recognize the principle that the right to vote for national officers is an inherent right and privilege of national citizenship, and that Congress retains the power to protect this right and privilege under both the necessary and proper clause and the 14th amendment. The Committee on House Administration concluded that a U.S. citizen residing outside the United States can remain a citizen of his last State of residence and domicile for purposes of voting in Federal elections under this bill, as long as he has not become a citizen of another State and has not otherwise relinquished his citizenship in such prior State.

Representative Gude:

The legislation we propose today seeks to insure not only the right to vote in Federal elections, but also the right to international travel and settlement.

Representative Frenzel:

These overseas citizens of the United States are scattered all over the globe. About one-quarter of them live in Canada; about one-quarter of them live in Western Europe; about 9 percent are In Mexico; and the rest are in more than 100 other foreign countries. They are American citizens. They pay U.S. taxes. They deserve the franchise.

Representative Hays:

I do not think we are going to find anybody voting under this law except people who are genuinely interested in the United States enough to go through the red tape to get the absentee ballot to vote.

Representative Rhodes:

I agree with the gentleman from Ohio that most of the people who would desire to vote would certainly be people who are still interested in the United States, who consider themselves to be citizens and who would vote if they were given the opportunity to do so in their own States.

Representative Railsback:

The right to vote is one of the most basic rights of American citizenship, and I strongly believe Congress has the power to protect this right under the necessary and proper clause and the 14th amendment.

The right of international travel has long been recognized as "an important aspect of the citizen's liberty" Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116, 127 (1958), and has been reaffirmed in 1964 in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 379 U.S. 500, 505. And the right is not just limited to those who are always on the move.

Representative Thompson:

By this act, we will simply insure the same rights to private citizens residing overseas, many of whom pay state taxes and have an active interest in the conduct of their Government.


Allowing expatriates to vote aims to simultaneously protect the right to vote and the right to international travel.

The assumption is that those that go through the trouble to vote from overseas are genuinely interested in the US.

"They are American citizens. They pay U.S. taxes. They deserve the franchise."


This is a broad question as expatriates life patterns (how long they stay abroad, reasons to go aboard, how much money they send home etc.) can be very different around the Globe.

One justification can be having the citizenship which involves rights and obligations. One such right is the right to vote. Of course, some countries decided to deny such right to diaspora (e.g. Ireland).

As I live in an Eastern European country greatly affected by emigration (Romania, which has more than 3.4M emigrants out of less then 20M citizens), mostly due to economical reasons, I can provide some justification from this angle:

1) Being affected - some members of diaspora are affected by what happens in their native country. That's because many of them hope for a better context and come back. In fact, I know several people within Romanian diaspora who knows much more details about native political events than many of my colleagues at work

2) Contribution - many members of diaspora send great amounts of money to their relatives in the native country. This happens because not all family was able to relocate and most of the remaining family members live in areas with high unemployment rates. So, they inject some money into the economy and they deserve to have some rights.

3) Political values towards liberal democracy - this is clearly debatable, but in all elections from the past years, diaspora voted for candidates with pro-Western views. E.g. About 90% diaspora votes were in favor of current President in the second round of 2014 presidential elections (a German ethnic known for its pro-EU and anti-corruption views).

4) Potentially benefit from plurality of opinions - this is just a guess, but I think that diaspora may have a contribution towards political pluralism. Living in another country may open new ways of seeing things (e.g. some Romanians understood the values of liberal democracy and vote and advice relatives to vote against demagogues, extremists and corrupt politicians). Of course, this works only when the political offer is diverse enough.

I think most of above reasons apply regardless of the years spent abroad.

  • Point 3 might be specific to Romania. The recent Turkish constitutional referendum, for example, was generally condemned by EU governments, yet it got a higher approval rate form Turks living in the EU than from Turks living in Turkey.
    – Philipp
    Apr 23 '17 at 1:20
  • @Philipp - yes, that's true, but it might apply for regular elections. Turkey's referendum seems very different from the usual elections, as explained by this answer. Diaspora received very little attention during elections. Also they might be a difference due to historical and cultural background.
    – Alexei
    Apr 23 '17 at 5:18
  • @Philipp Actually, it's another example of the same, only in the opposite direction. Similar things could be said about French expats. One way or the other, there is one side of the political spectrum with a clear interest in having expatriates vote. [Incidentally, would you happen to know where to find detailed result of the recent Turkish referendum by country? I only heard about Germany and the Netherlands, not the whole EU.]
    – Relaxed
    Apr 23 '17 at 6:54
  • @Relaxed - you can find the results on Wikipedia
    – Alexei
    Apr 23 '17 at 6:59

While many laws of the expat's home country may not affect them, some laws do affect them. For example America requires Americans overseas to pay taxes.

Another reason why expats are affected by their home government is the draft, depending on the country an expat may be subject to being drafted.

That brings us to perhaps the most important way the expat is affected: foreign policy. If you live in country X and your home country's relations with country X turn sour, you may find yourself being kicked out and forced to return home. Or worse, if your country goes to war with country X you may find yourself imprisoned for the duration or even killed.

And then there is trade. Many expats perform work that is related to trade between their home country and the country they are visiting, so they have an interest in the trade policies of their home country.


In short: When you argue that non-citizens should not be allowed to vote, despite living in your country and being affected by its laws, you kind of have to allow citizens to vote, despite not living in your country.

Thus, citizenship gives voting rights.

If you restrict voting rights to citizens that live inside the country, you could create a case for giving everybody who lives in your country and pays taxes to have a right to vote.

  • 1
    The logic behind this is that everybody should be allowed to vote in exactly one country. And there are two logical rules to achieve this: Either all citizens can vote, or all residents can vote.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 24 '17 at 23:02

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