High court ruling allows long-term expats to vote in byelections across Canada

Supreme Court decision enfranchised an estimated one million or more Canadian expats to be able to vote

Expat Canadians with ties to one of three ridings now in the throes of byelections may be eligible to vote no matter how long they’ve been abroad given last week’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

While the government got ahead of the high court ruling with new legislation passed last month, most provisions of Bill C-76 were only slated to take effect after six months — in good time for October’s general election. However, the Supreme Court decision on Jan. 11 took immediate effect.

Elections Canada wasted little time advertising the change after the high court struck down a 1993 law disenfranchising Canadians abroad for more than five years as unconstitutional.

“A Canadian elector living abroad who has previously resided in Canada is entitled to vote by special ballot in federal elections regardless of how long they have been living abroad,” Elections Canada said. “Elections Canada is currently updating its online forms and information to reflect the ruling, which came into effect immediately and is therefore applicable in the current three byelections.”

On Feb. 25, voters living in Ontario’s York–Simcoe, Burnaby South in B.C. and Outremont in Quebec get to choose a new member of Parliament. All interested Canadians abroad over the age of 18 with certain ties to one of the ridings are now also eligible to vote by way of a “special ballot.”

READ MORE: Supreme Court rules restrictions on expat voting unconstitutional

To receive a ballot, expats are required to register with Elections Canada in Ottawa by 6 p.m. ET on Feb. 19. Among other things, they must show either that they were living in one of the ridings before leaving Canada or that a spouse or relative does.

Jamie Duong, one of two Canadians who launched their challenge of the old law eight years ago, said on Friday that he was pleased Elections Canada had updated its registration forms less than a week after the Supreme Court decision.

“I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to cast my ballot in the upcoming Outremont byelection,” Duong, 35, of Ithaca, N.Y., said on Friday. ”Now that I’ve won back my voting rights, I fully intend to exercise them.”

While the Supreme Court decision enfranchised an estimated one million or more Canadian expats, only a relative handful have so far asked to vote in the byelections. Latest Elections Canada figures indicate fewer than 100 Canadians abroad have registered to vote, with about two-thirds of those doing so in Outremont.

When Bill C-76 is in full force, non-resident voters will only be able to vote in the riding in which they themselves last lived before leaving Canada.

“Once registered at an address in an electoral district, the elector cannot change the address as long as they remain registered on the international register of electors,” said Ghislain Desjardins, a senior adviser with Elections Canada.

In a separate opinion, Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Rowe agreed the five-year limit was unconstitutional even if its impact might have been minimal in terms of actual election results.

“There is almost no evidence of the impact that long-term non-residents would or could have had either locally or nationally if permitted to vote,” Rowe said. “The evidence that exists suggests that the impact would likely be negligible, since a very small number of Canadians living abroad who are currently eligible to vote choose to exercise that right.”

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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