Canadians voted federally in September, and Albertans head back to the polls in October for municipal elections. But who has the right to vote in these elections?
The right to vote is the foundation of democracy, and democracy cannot be established without it. Voting allows individuals to affect government decisions. It can take place on a national, regional or local level, where individual participation in government is equally important.
The right to vote has been acknowledged as a fundamental human right. However, millions of individuals around the world do not enjoy this right. This group includes non-citizens, disabled people, minorities, those who commit crimes, and those discriminated against based on gender, race and ethnicity.
Only Canadian citizens can vote
Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads:
Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.
Section 3 of the Canada Elections Act states:
Every person who is a Canadian citizen and who on polling day is 18 years of age or older is qualified as an elector.
Section 16 of the Election Act in Alberta defines an “elector” as a Canadian citizen who is “18 years of age or older and is ordinarily resident in Alberta.” In addition, for municipal and education board of trustees elections, section 47 of Alberta’s Local Authorities Election Act says a person is eligible to vote if they are at least 18 years, are a Canadian citizen, and reside in Alberta with their place of residence being the local jurisdiction on election day. (See LawNow’s “A Primer on Municipal Law in Alberta” article for more information on the powers of municipal governments.)
It is clear from these sections that only Canadian citizens have the right to vote. The Supreme Court of Canada confirmed this in its 2003 decision in Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General). The Court stated that “the purpose of section 3 is to protect the right of each citizen to play a meaningful role in the electoral process”.
Non-citizen residents cannot vote
In Rheaume v Ontario (Attorney-General), the Court mentioned that:
“Non-citizens are a group lacking in political power and as such vulnerable to having their interests overlooked and their rights to equal concern and respect violated. They are among ‘those groups in society to whose needs and wishes elected officials have no apparent interest in attending’.”
Many democracies around the world have given—to some extent — non-citizens the right to vote either in national or local elections if they meet the country’s residency requirements.
In Canada, many disenfranchised groups, such as prisoners, women and Indigenous peoples, have won the right to vote over the years. However, no level of government – municipal, provincial or federal – has extended this right to non-citizen residents. But that might change at least at the municipal level.
Proposals for change at the municipal level
Some Canadian cities (Toronto, Vancouver, Saint John, to name a few) have proposed extending voting rights to permanent residents. However, they were not successful in convincing provincial or federal governments to change the laws to allow this. Also, in Nova Scotia, “a private member’s bill was introduced in the legislature that would allow permanent residents to vote in municipal elections, but it died after first reading.”
Currently, Montreal wants to extend voting rights to more than 100,000 non-citizens to “better integrate immigrants and encourage more racialized people to participate in municipal politics.” According to a report by the city’s committee on social development and diversity, “granting voting rights to permanent residents is one of the ways to foster political participation and ensure better representation of the various groups that form society.”
Critics of this suggestion have made it clear that “voting is one of the essential rights that come with citizenship. Letting non-citizens vote takes away an incentive for them to become full Canadians, and that’s the last thing a big city that absorbs huge numbers of immigrants should be doing.”
Some have stated that “allowing voting rights to non-citizens will alter the status of citizenship.” This might “reduce the interest of requesting citizenship if the vote can be so freely taken away.” Others have said that “voting should be the exclusive privilege of citizens; permanent residents who wish to vote should seek naturalization. This is the idea about loyalty to the community they just joined by following its values and practices.”
Other critics have argued that “foreign governments may attempt to influence the domestic politics of countries where their expatriate citizens are enfranchised.”
Aside from these critics, many believe that non-citizens should be granted the right to vote since they pay property taxes.These taxes in turn fund municipal services such as schools, transit, police and garbage collection. Regardless of how long they have lived in Canada, non-citizens have no power to decide on how these taxes are spent.
In his paper, The Municipal Franchise and Social Inclusion in Toronto: Policy and Practice, Professor Myer Siemiatycki argues that allowing non-citizen residents to vote in municipal elections would “significantly advance democracy, civic participation, and the prospects for more responsive public policy in Toronto.”
“[P]ermanent residents are often new Canadians who are dealing with a lot of government programs and services. To give them the vote would give them a greater say and would likely improve those services, which lots of other people access as well, but particularly people who are new here, as they are adjusting and getting set up.”
Governments in Nordic countries first proposed to extend voting rights to non-citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The reason for the change was to encourage the integration of immigrants into “both local community life and the broader, more foundational national identity.” Similarly, the Maastricht Treaty requires that citizens of European Union states be granted the right to vote in local elections in sister states “to facilitate a sense of shared EU citizenship and integration.”
Voting and involvement in the political life in Canada has always been the right of citizens. That non-citizen residents cannot vote denies them the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. If non-citizens have voting rights at the local level, they could participate in the political life where they live and could better integrate into their communities.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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