Explainer: Why are Expats Represented in Home Countries?

On June 17th, a New Yorker was elected to the French Parliament.

Corinne Narassiguin, a French citizen who has lived in the United States since 2002 and works as a banker in the Big Apple, now represents the first constituency for French residents overseas, an electoral district comprised of the United States and Canada. It's estimated that the "district" contains a little over 150,000 French citizens who are registered to vote.

France’s 2012 parliamentary elections marked the first time that French expats could elect direct representation in their home country. Eleven of the 577 seats in parliament were reserved for expat communities; in essence, France carved up the globe into 11 electoral districts. Necessarily, these districts can be extremely large. One stretches from South Africa to Iraq. 

France’s new policy is a step beyond letting expats cast absentee ballots in their home electoral districts while overseas. That’s something U.S. citizens have been allowed to do since 1975; ninety-one countries around the world currently allow expat voting of this sort.

Only 17 countries have ever done what France has just started doing. The list includes Algeria; Angola; Cape Verde; Haiti; Estonia; Italy; and the Dominican Republic, which now has three expat representatives based in New Jersey.

Why give special representation to expats? Generally, proponents of such a system say that it gives the diaspora community a greater voice in their native country’s affairs. In France’s case, 11 seats out of 577 isn’t exactly the kind of bloc that could lead the political conversation, but it is a symbolic and practical expansion of representation: You have a voice in parliament that you didn’t before.

One reason nations may want to extend special representation to expats is to increase the likelihood that they will return one day. But in some cases, it may also serve a political purpose.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for his country to adopt expat representation following his election in 2007, at a time when it was assumed most expats would favor the policies of the right-leaning president, and therefore elect sympathetic representation to overseas seats. This proved to be half-correct: Sarkozy carried 53 percent of the expat vote in this year’s presidential election, but seven of the 11 overseas seats went to Socialist candidates, North America’s Corinne Narassigun among them.

"The reforms that introduce external voting are very often decided on partisan grounds by incumbent governments who expect to gain because they think the expat vote will be in their favor," said Rainer Bauböck, a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute who appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday morning.

Giving expats their own seats in legislative bodies can also keep them from swaying elections in districts back in their home countries. A government might want to remove the possibility of, say, liberal expats tipping the scales in their native, conservative districts, and sticking the locals with a representative they don’t care for and whose job performance doesn’t directly impact the overseas voters who put them there.

Whatever the logic behind offering special representation to overseas citizens, the idea probably sounds strange to most Americans, mainly because we don’t do it. But evolutions in external voting, beginning with the humble absentee ballot for citizens abroad, appear to have kept pace, generally, with advances in technology and transportation. The easier it is to move around the world, the harder states might try to keep their citizens feeling like citizens, wherever they live.

“Globalization and the promotion of transnational ties by sending states are certainly the main explanation for the global trend towards external voting rights,” Rainer Bauböck said.

Alfredo Rodriguez, a New Jersey resident and citizen of the Dominican Republic who is one of the three newly-elected expat representatives to the DR, was also on The Brian Lehrer Show this morning. He said that overseas representatives in the U.S. could do more than just advocate for the interests of expats.

"I came to the U.S. when I was six years old. I came here with the American Dream that I was able to fulfill, but there's a lot of Dominicans in the Dominican Republic that want to have their own dreams there," Rodriguez said. "It seems like some government is not taking care of most of their needs. Dominicans that are here, we understand both worlds."

Correction: This article originally said there were 15 countries that allowed special representation for expats, which was according to Rainer Bauböck. But on Wednesday's Brian Lehrer Show, Bauböck self-corrected, saying there were actually 16 countries that did this. The list mistakenly excluded Macedonia.

A caller also chimed in to say their home country should have been included in the count. Adding Ecuador to the list makes 17.