Voters without borders: “EU and Spanish electoral law require urgent reform”

Iago Rodriguez and Tommaso Bratto

More than 5.6 million Catalans were called on Sunday 14th to have a say on the new Parlament and influence the formation of the next Govern de la Generalitat, Catalonia’s regional executive. Although the Socialists received the most votes, pro-independence party ERC is said to lead the next regional government with the support of the nationalist bloc. 

Turnout was around 53.5% – the lowest in Catalonia’s democratic history – However, universal suffrage was not guaranteed for every citizen in the same way. There is a group of voters who persistently face excessive and unnecessary difficulties when casting their ballots, namely Catalans who reside abroad. On top of that, the almost 500,000 European citizens residing in Catalonia remain disenfranchised in their regional elections.

Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya

In fact, according to Exterior, expatriate voting has fallen by 60% compared to the last elections. In 2021, only 15,852 citizens voted – out of a census of 255,163 – while the number of votes reached 39,521 in 2017. This means that only 6% of expatriates have participated in the Catalan elections. In practical terms, the current electoral law has disenfranchised the entirety of the expatriate community, even though the number of Catalans living abroad has increased by around 5% every year in the last decade. Any long-term solution would require abolishing the current expatriate voting system (voto rogado) – Spaniards abroad are not considered automatically eligible, instead, they need to explicitly demand their right to vote in a consulate, even if registered as a permanent resident in the other country – the increasing number of Catalans abroad also calls for the creation of a separate expatriate electoral district.

It is worth highlighting the proposal presented on October 19th on the need to reform the current expatriate voting system, which since its implementation in 2011 has led to a drastic fall in expatriate participation. The proposal received broad parliamentary support, except for the abstention of the far-right party Vox. Administrative obstacles include the inaccessibility of consulates, due to both distance and restricted opening times. These make it extremely costly for working expatriates to participate in the complex bureaucratic process required to cast their vote. 

Alina, a Spaniard living in the Netherlands, had to travel from her town to the Spanish consulate in Amsterdam to demand her right to vote in the Catalan elections. For Alina, the consulate has failed to send her the required papers insufficient time to process her vote, and so she will not be able to vote in the end.

Marea Granate, a non-partisan transnational organisation, has been denouncing for years the obstacles faced by expatriates as well as reporting to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on electoral irregularities in previous national and European elections. They describe the problems generated by in-person registering, short time frames, delays and insufficient information as well as lack of political will to address these well-known issues.

Parc Güell, Barcelona

Regarding those European citizens residing in Catalonia, article 22 of the TFEU ensures their right to vote in municipal and European Parliament elections; while they are not allowed to vote in regional or national elections, including referendums. Therefore, these groups of citizens have been prevented from choosing the representatives that will decide on their future. 

Given the series of obstacles outlined above, Voters Without Borders puts forward the following question: Is there not a public interest in guaranteeing and ensuring the democratic participation of Catalans living abroad as well as of European citizens living in Catalonia? The fact that 94% of voters residing abroad will not cast their ballots should raise the concern of Catalan and Spanish civil society. Immigrants continue to be affected by the decisions taken in their country of origin and deserve, the same as other societal groups, political representation.

We can only hope that the new representatives will listen to the voice of the 750.000 Catalan and European citizens who are demanding fundamental electoral rights. The European Citizens’ Initiative “Voters Without Borders” was born to address the lack of guarantees and protection of existing political rights and to promote an expansion of European citizens’ participation in regional and national elections, as well as referendums. 

If you want to ensure that political rights are equally guaranteed for all types of citizens, you can sign our petition in the European Commission’s official link:     

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