Citizens Abroad Battle for Voting Rights in S. Africa and S. Korea

Over the past couple of weeks, a new debate concerning voting rights has popped up around the world. The issue revolves around whether or not to give expatriates the right to vote in the national elections of their countries of citizenship.

On January 22, former South African president F.W. de Klerk made a motion for citizens living abroad to be granted the right to vote in the 2009 election. South Africans residing overseas were given the right to vote in the first democratic elections in 1994 elections, but several years later, overseas votes were strictly limited. De Klerk argues that not allowing citizens abroad to cast their ballots is outright discrimination because the Constitution of South Africa unambiguously grants all citizens the right to vote. He also commented that it is wildly unjust for prisoners to be given the right to vote but not citizens who reside outside of the country.

Similarly, lawmakers in South Korea are facing the issue of whether or not to grant the right to vote to Korean citizens living overseas. This hot topic has been taken to a National Assembly ad hoc committee in order to be comprehensively discussed. The Grand National Party (GNP) legislators currently favor a proposal that would allow millions of expatriates to vote in presidential as well as local elections. The GNP faces off with the Democratic Party, which insists that only short-term residents abroad be given the right to vote. The GNP maintains, however, that extending the right to vote to a larger number of overseas residents can have a much more significant political influence, which would be helpful in close elections. 

South Africa and South Korea are two of the very few countries that do not allow citizens abroad to vote in elections, although overseas voting rights are not exactly as beneficial as you would think.

The United States, for example, has encountered several problems. The Election Assistance Commission reported data that showed the low participation of expatriates in the 2006 congressional election. According to the Commission, fewer that 16.5 percent of the 6 million citizens abroad requested a ballot, and a large number of those requested were returned to the election offices undelivered. Only 5.5 percent of the eligible voters actually voted, and 23 percent of those votes were not successfully counted due to delays.

Two bills were introduced in the House in 2007 to amend the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and to help increase voter turnout. Both bills, the Overseas Vote Act and the Overseas Voting Practical Amendments Act of 2007, were never reviewed by committee and consequently died in the previous session of Congress.

Looking at the low level of participation in the US elections by citizens abroad, it’s worth noting that procedural failures could only have had so much to do with the scarcity of votes. So the question is, is this particular fight for voting rights in South Africa and South Korea worth the time and effort?