The Ballot Box: The Impossible Vote from Abroad

Even if the Italian Constitution and secondary laws facilitate voting from abroad, several impediments still complicate the process.

Vote from abroad card
Be a voter postcards. Photo: Photo: Dan Dennis on Unsplash.

It’s not always easy to vote when living abroad. Thanks to strict requirements and straightforward disenfranchisement measures, in some cases it is even impossible.

In the case of Italy, even when the constitution and secondary laws facilitate voting from abroad, several impediments still complicate the voting process. New reforms and technological solutions are therefore needed.

Voting from abroad

EU citizens living in other member states face several issues when voting abroad for elections and referendums in their residence and their home country. Voters Without Borders attends to the disenfranchisement of mobile EU citizens in regional and national elections in their country of residence. In this context, the charity has been collecting signatures to pressure the EU to expand voting rights beyond municipal and European elections.

A particular issue is the difficulty facing mobile citizens face when deciding to vote for their home country’s elections from abroad. Indeed, there are no EU standards governing citizens’ rights to participate in such elections and referendums, as each EU country has its own rules determining who can vote or stand as a candidate from abroad. While some member states such as Denmark and Malta have a constitutionally enshrined residence requirement for eligibility to vote, other states such as Austria impose more requirements on citizens abroad than on those residing within their territory.

Such requirements add up to those voting impediments identified by Voters Without Borders — and their ultimate consequence is to prevent EU citizens from being political represented. Indeed, depriving expatriates of the right to vote in the home country’s national election is particular harmful where the host country does not allow EU citizens residing on their territory to vote in national elections. This situation effectively prevents some citizens from being represented in national governments and in EU affairs through the European Council (composed of national ministers). This way, some EU countries’ laws violate the assumption of ‘no taxation without representation’.

The Italian case

Unlike other EU states, Italy explicitly prohibits citizens from being disenfranchised due to their residence abroad. According to Article 48 of the Italian constitution, residence in Italy is not required for the right to vote in national elections.

Until 2001, Italy imposed strict restrictions on voting from abroad, which kept participation of mobile citizens at a bare minimum for decades. In the 1979 parliamentary elections, for example, turnout was 22% among Italians living in Europe and as low as 2.4% among their compatriots living on other continents due to high travel costs.

After 2001, several measures were enacted to facilitate postal voting. For example, Law 459 allowed Italian expatriates to be registered on the electoral rolls of overseas constituencies in every continent, allowing them to vote for their parliamentary representatives without having to return home or to vote in person at a polling station in their previous place of residence. Voting is usually done by mail, but in many elections and referendums absentee ballots are permitted for Italians who have lived abroad for at least three months. Furthermore, voters residing in countries where there are no Italian diplomatic missions and must therefore vote in Italy may be eligible for a reimbursement of up to 75% of their travel expenses.

Nonetheless, low shares of Italians voting from abroad in recent years demonstrate that these measures are insufficient to facilitate voting from abroad. Only 30% of around 4 million Italians living abroad voted in both the 2016 referendum and the 2018 elections. Recent difficulties with the global pandemic even reduced participation in the 2020 referendum to 23.30%. It is clear, therefore, that more should be done to encourage voting from abroad.

The issues facing Italian voters abroad

But what prevents Italian voters residing in other EU states from exercising their constitutional right to vote? What emerged is that implementing voting rights has proven especially difficult.

Administrative hurdles complicate the postal voting process, from list submission to vote collection and counting. Many people reported problems receiving voting papers at home — or receiving them too late — preventing them from returning the papers to consulates before the deadline. This is frequently due to errors made by Italian consulates, but also due to delays in local postal services.

For example, Sofia, an Italian resident of Brussels, complained on Euronews about problems in receiving voting papers by post: “We Italians abroad have the right to vote, but we are experiencing so many problems. Voting is a moral obligation, and the Italian government must protect our voting rights.” Similarly, many Italians on social media claim to have received their neighbors’ voting papers at home, owing to bureaucratic issues at Italian consulates and errors in their AIRE registered address.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated postal voting processes, especially for the September 2020 referendum. National lockdowns paralyzed national and regional systems around the world. Covid cases, for example, blocked consulates in 16 nations, including the one in Nice, France. Collecting votes was also hampered by disruptions in postal services and postmen’s strikes.

The consequences of such implementation issues are numerous. Like disenfranchisement, they limit political representation and may deter citizens from relocating to another EU Member State. Meanwhile, limited voting shares abroad also have an impact on the Italian political system by strengthening populist parties. The outcome of the 2018 elections abroad, in particular, showed the predominance of pro-system and pro-European parties in votes from the UK, Germany, and France, in line with previous elections. On the other hand, the anti-immigrant League and anti-establishment M5s, which received a large number of votes from Italian residents, were unable to overcome the predominantly moderate nature of the expatriate vote. Consequently, the identified implementation issues reduce vote shares for mainstream forces, creating a distorted picture of Italy’s political landscape.

Possible solutions: reforms and the digital vote

What are the possible solutions to facilitate voting from abroad?

Voters Without Borders’ demand to extend mobile EU citizens’ voting rights to include regional and national elections and referendums would allow mobile citizens to vote at least in their country of residence, thereby addressing, partially, their lack of political representation.

However, other changes are needed. In some EU countries, constitutional reforms or new laws are required to allow voting from abroad. In others, such as Italy, simpler bureaucratic requirements could facilitate the process. In this context, EU institutions should put pressure on national institutions to simplify procedures in consulates and to better organize and homogenize postal vote delivery and collection across countries.

Technological advancement is also a possible solution. On July 2020, the Italian government issued a decree with a budget of one million euros to test digital voting for referendums, political and European elections, to simplify voting procedures for Italians living abroad and in other Italian regions.

Nonetheless, whereas postal voting is a well-established mechanism, digital voting may be problematic. Security concerns may jeopardize vote secrecy, as cyber-attacks can intercept and manipulate votes, as well as reveal voters’ identities. As voters would use personal laptops that are frequently incapable of contrasting even the most common threats, today’s technology provides only limited protection against cyber-attacks. In the event of proven digital fraud, a completely centralized digital voting system may also make it impossible to identify the portion of votes tainted by fraud, effectively halting the entire democratic process.

Therefore, voting online seems an ideal solution, but many issues still need to be solved. European and national institutions should be central in reforming voting systems and introducing new technological alternatives. Online collections of signatures, including those for ECIs such as that of Voters Without Borders, show that internet can be safely used to strengthen political representation. However, it is also true that referendums and elections require much stronger safety measures that still need governments’ efforts and technological development.

The Ballot Box is the Italics column by Voters Without Borders aimed at informing European citizens living in Italy and in other EU countries about voting rights issues. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) seeks to raise EU citizens’ awareness of their voting rights as mobile citizens living in other EU member states. As a result, it is in our interests to highlight issues that Italian citizens face abroad in terms of political representation and to investigate available and potential solutions to improve democracy.

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