Disenfranchisement is so passé. In the last century, we’ve seen considerable expansion of the vote-carrying population. The gradual inclusion of women, Asians, Inuit, the mentally disabled, and prisoners in Canadian elections speaks to a growing awareness that voting is a fundamental right that ought never be denied to persons, regardless of ethnicity, perceived capacity, or any other arbitrary and unjust standard. Today, there remains no greater injustice in public policy than the disenfranchisement of over 200,000 permanent residents in Canadian elections.
Voting is not a privilege. It is an absolute right and the means by which all of our other rights are negotiated. A vote constitutes the most fundamental and powerful check on the power of the state over the individual. Every time the state legislates, it is necessarily limiting the autonomy of its people in some way. From minor things like traffic laws to more severe limits upon free religious expression, these policies have tangible impacts on the way individuals are able to live their lives. The only way to ensure that this coercive limitation on individual liberties can be justified is with consent. In Canadian society, this consent comes in the form of a vote.
As such, we really ought to reconsider our criteria for enfranchisement. To become a permanent resident, you have to demonstrate some form of long-term commitment to Canada. You generally live and work here, and are both subject to the state’s laws and forced to pay taxes. What more is needed?
Without a vote, politicians have no incentive to cater to the diverse but unique cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic needs of the permanent population. There is no reason for their preferences to be considered, no legitimate forum for their voices to be heard – unless they are given the power of a vote. Permanent residents often have shared, urgent group interests, such as the language of education of their children or special types of religious accommodation. Without a vote, they can’t meaningfully push for anti-discrimination legislation, and they have no reason to feel like they are part of Canadian society.
Opponents argue that if permanent residents want to vote, they should “simply become citizens of Canada.” As though the process of acquiring Canadian citizenship is ever that “simple” or universally plausible. For one thing, many permanent residents will never qualify for citizenship as a result of linguistic, educational, or demographic criteria that serve as barriers to their inclusion. For another, even those who do wish to become citizens will still retain the status of permanent resident for at least three years, and deserve a voice in the meantime.
Living without a vote is akin to living in a state of slavery, where the coercive use of state power influences your every act and you have no choice but to live with it or to flee. In Canada, we don’t think individuals can consent to slavery. We shouldn’t think permanent residents can consent to it either.
Riva Gold writes in this space every week. Send her your ballots at firstname.lastname@example.org.