Disenfranchising the Absentees

Every few years, the question of granting Israeli citizens who happen to be abroad on election day the right to vote comes up for discussion.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on March 17, 2009.)

Every few years, the question of granting Israeli citizens who happen to be abroad on election day the right to vote comes up for discussion. And each time the same old outworn arguments are rolled out.

We should not give those Israelis who have left Israel and taken up permanent residence abroad the opportunity to influence the future of our country, some people say. Others reply that it is important to maintain ties with Israelis who reside abroad, and such ties may influence them to return to Israel.

Then there are those who attempt to gauge the political leanings of the Israelis who reside abroad, and determine their position on this important issue based on whether letting Israeli citizens abroad  vote is likely to gain or weaken support for own their political views.

Yet all this ignores the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed: Under what circumstances is it proper to deny some citizens the right to vote, or in other words, to disenfranchise them? Is a citizen’s presence abroad on election day sufficient reason to deny him his right to participate in an election?

The judgment in the United States, and in most democracies, is that citizens  abroad on election day should be given the opportunity to vote using an absentee ballot. It is a judgment based on the principle that a citizen’s right to vote is the very basis of democratic government, while in this era of globalization and travel many of a country’s citizens are likely to be abroad on election day.

Should Israel be an exception? At present, of those citizens abroad on election day, only members of Israel’s diplomatic corps and sailors are entitled to vote. All others are denied their right as citizens to participate in elections.

The claim that, except for members of the diplomatic service and sailors, all Israeli citizens abroad on election day have left Israel permanently, and based on that should be denied the right to vote, is obviously absurd. Many Israelis have been posted abroad by Israeli companies such as Teva, Israel Aerospace Industries and El Al. Why should they not have the same rights as members of the diplomatic service? Thousands of recently discharged soldiers are on what has become a customary tour in many parts of the world after their army service, prepared at any moment to respond to a call-up for reserve duty. Should they be disenfranchised during this period?

Many professors are on sabbatical abroad, many students are studying abroad and many graduate students are doing doctoral or postdoctoral studies abroad. Tens of thousands of Israelis are abroad nowadays on any given day. Is it proper to punish them by denying them the right to vote?

To the extent to which the figure can be estimated, there are probably at any time more than 100,000 Israeli citizens abroad whose permanent residence is in Israel and who meet the obligations of Israeli citizenship. Disenfranchising them is a blatant violation of their civil rights and inconsistent with the principles of democracy.

So what is the problem? How do you differentiate the sheep from the goats, or those Israelis who are abroad temporarily from those who have left Israel permanently? If, for example, it were required that to be entitled to an absentee ballot an Israeli citizen abroad would have to present a valid Israeli passport, proof of having been in Israel during the past five years and a signed statement that he intends to return to permanently reside in Israel during the next five years, there would still remain the possibility that some of those complying with these requirements would be citizens who have no intention to return. And whatever alternate requirements might be formulated, some loopholes are still likely to remain for those intent on using them.

Now here is the question that needs to be resolved: Should all Israeli citizens who are abroad on election day but have no intention of leaving Israel permanently be disenfranchised, so as to prevent from participating in the election a small number of Israelis who have left the country permanently but are intent on using loopholes in the requirements for an absentee ballot? It would seem that the rights of citizens properly entitled to vote should take precedence over such considerations.

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