Feb 9, 2019

The Supreme Court at last delivered its judgment on the constitutionality of disenfranchising Canadians abroad in Frank v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 1. By five votes to two, the Court holds that disenfranchisement is indeed unconstitutional. This is, as I have long argued (especially in criticizing the decision to the contrary by the Court of Appeal for Ontario), the right result. Full disclosure, in case this is necessary: I am myself a Canadian abroad, and while I would not have been disenfranchised at the coming election under the rules the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional, and am only an occasional and reluctant voter anyway, I am emotionally invested in this issue.

Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” The Canada Elections Act sets out the details of how this right can be exercised―and denies it to some groups of citizens. One of these disenfranchised groups consists of Canadians who have not resided in Canada for more than five years, although those who are representatives of a Canadian government or members of the Canadian forces, as well as members of such persons’ families, are not subject to disenfranchisement.

The government conceded that denying their right to vote breached section 3 of the Charter, but contended that the breach was justified as a reasonable limit authorized by the Charter‘s section 1. The majority―Chief Justice Wagner (who wrote the majority opinion) and Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis, and Gascon―, as well as Justice Rowe, who concurs, reject this view. In dissent, Justices Côté and Brown say that the denial of the franchise to Canadians abroad is justified.

Relying on the Court’s decision in Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 SCR 519, which invalidated the disenfranchisement of long-term prisoners, the Chief Justice writes that the right to vote must be given a “broad and purposive interpretation”, and “any intrusions on [it] are to be reviewed on the basis of a stringent justification standard”. [25] The Chief Justice rejects deference to Parliament, insisting that “reviewing courts must examine the government’s proffered justification carefully and rigorously”. [43] Unlike in cases that involve “complex” or “nuanced” choices among competing priorities, deference “is not the appropriate posture for a court reviewing an absolute prohibition of a core democratic right”. [44] Later, however, when considering whether the prohibition is “minimally impairing” of the right, the Chief Justice grants that “some deference must be accorded to the legislature by giving it a certain latitude”. [66]

As for residency requirements for voting, they are “an organizing mechanism”, “an important device” [28] that helps structure our electoral system, but have no constitutional value in themselves: “In clear language, the Charter tethers voting rights to citizenship, and citizenship alone.” [29] In any case, there already are Canadian citizens who are allowed to vote from abroad, suggesting that residence within cannot be an implicit pre-condition for having the right to vote.

Applying the test for the justification of Charter infringements set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103, the Chief Justice begins by rejecting the idea, accepted by the Ontario Court of Appeal, that “preserving the social contract” whereby citizens’ obedience to laws is exchanged for a say in making them as a pressing and substantial objective capable of justifying the infringement of rights. While Sauvé had invoked the language of social contract theory, correctly understood, it stands for the proposition “that deeming that a citizen has ‘withdrawn’ from the social contract is not a legitimate basis for denying him or her the right to vote”. [52] However, the Chief Justice accepts that “maintaining the fairness of the electoral system to resident Canadians”, [55] which he seems to interpret by focusing on the existence of a connection between voters and the Canadian polity, is an important governmental objective.

At the second stage of the Oakes test, the Chief Justice finds that the government “has not definitively shown that a limit of any duration” on the ability of Canadians to vote from abroad “would be rationally connected to the electoral fairness objective advanced in this case”, [60; emphasis in the original] but declines to reach a firm conclusion. He argues, however, that neither the existence of residence requirements for voting in provincial elections nor the prevalence of such requirements abroad make their imposition by Parliament rational, and observers that “there is no evidence of the harm that these voting restrictions are meant to address”, [63] or even any complaints about those non-resident citizens who already are able to vote.

As often, it is the next stage, originally described as that of “minimal impairment” although the word “minimal” has not subsequently been taken literally, that is crucial. The Chief Justice finds that disenfranchising Canadians after five years abroad, “[f]ar from being a measure that is carefully tailored so as to impair voting rights no more than is reasonably necessary, … seems to have been simply a ‘middle-of-the-road’ compromise”. [67] There is no “correlation between, on the one hand, how long a Canadian citizen has lived abroad and when he or she intends to return and, on the other hand, the extent of his or her subjective commitment to Canada”. [68] Indeed, whether the issue is knowledge of and commitment to Canada, the impact of Canadian laws on a given voter, many Canadians abroad will be better qualified as voters than those residing in the country. Chief Justice Wagner concludes by noting that “[a] non-resident citizen who takes the trouble to vote by way of special ballot … has demonstrated a profound attachment to Canada. We have nothing to gain from disenfranchising such citizens.” [75] In the same vein, he notes that any positive effects of this disenfranchisement are speculative, while the negative impact on those disenfranchised is real and present.

Justice Rowe agrees that disenfranchising Canadians who live abroad is unjustified, but writes separately to emphasize the “significance and centrality of residence to our system of representative democracy”. [84] He details the history of residency requirements in Canadian election legislation (including the slow expansion of voting rights for Canadians abroad), and pointedly rebukes the majority by claiming that “residence has been historically and remains today more than just an ‘organizing mechanism’. It is foundational to our system”. [90] As a result, Justice Rowe says, while “[s]ection 3 [of the Charter] protects the right to vote … it does not follow as a corollary that there is a right to vote in the constituency or province of one’s choosing”. [91] Provincial and territorial residency requirements, in particular, would be subject to different considerations than federal ones (including because provincial laws are more local in nature and applicability than federal ones).

Whatever might be justifiable in other cases, however, Justice Rowe concludes that the disenfranchisement of long-term expatriates is not. He accepts that it pursues the objective of electoral fairness, although he notes that fairness for resident citizens is being pursued at the expense of non-residents. Justice Rowe also accepts that fairness can reasonably be pursued by preventing “those who are largely unaffected (non-residents) [from] participating in decisions that would affect others (residents)”. [103] Passing over the question of whether the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is minimally impairing of their right to vote, he moves on to the balancing of its salutary and deleterious effects. The former, he finds, are “negligible”, [106] since very few expatriates actually vote. The latter are not. Expatriates who are disenfranchised “may not feel the local consequences of particular federal policies in the constituencies in which their votes would be counted, [but] they stand nonetheless to be affected by certain federal laws and policies, perhaps in life altering ways”. [107] As a result, the disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is not justified.

Justices Côté and Brown dissent. They not only disagree with the outcome reached by the majority and Justice Rowe, but want to approach the issue quite differently. They stress that the right to vote “is a positive right which, unlike most Charter rights, requires legislative specification in order for the right to be operative”, [113; emphasis in the original] so that the denial of the franchise to expatriates is not the product of legislative action, but of a “failure to extend the right to vote” to them. [128] This right is also not absolute: “Nobody suggests that s[ection] 3 entitles three-year-old Canadian citizens to vote.” [114] Indeed, they deny that the legislative provisions at issue “disenfranchise” long-term expatriates, since they had not been allowed prior to these provisions’ enactment, or ever. They also accuse the majority (and, implicitly, any number of past judgments) of “distort[ing] the limitations analysis” [120] by speaking of a “breach” or “infringement” of the right to vote rather than of a “limitation” on this right, as the terms of section 1 of the Charter would suggest. (A breach, they insist, is caused by a limitation that is not justified.)

Thus the real question, Justices Côté and Brown argue, is whether the long-term expatriates’ right to vote has been reasonably limited. The way to answer this question is to apply the Oakes test. However, while they make a point of agreeing with the majority that the burden of justification under this test rests on the government, Justices Côté and Brown insist, citing the dissenting opinion in Sauvé (without acknowledging that they are relying on the dissent) on “a ‘flexible contextual approach’ … one that eschews rigid and technical application”. [124, citing Sauvé at [84]] They also argue that it is wrong to look for “a concrete problem or mischief” that rights-limiting legislation is meant to address, because it is “undeniable … that Parliament can constitutionally legislate in pursuit of, or in response to, considerations of political morality or philosophy”. [126] There is “moral nuance inherent in defining and defending the boundaries of rights—that is, in justifying rights limitations”—and, like “Parliament’s policy-making expertise”, it must be “afford[ed] due respect”. [126]

Justices Côté and Brown define Parliament’s objective as “privileg[ing] a relationship of some currency between electors and the communities in which they are eligible to vote”. [132] (In doing so, they spend four extensive paragraphs cautioning against reliance on statements by individual legislators during the course of parliamentary debate… and conclude by pointing to statements that support their understanding of the objective.) This objective “is clearly inspired by a particular moral philosophical understanding of the relationship between citizen and state in a democracy”. [140] Indeed, electoral “legislation is never designed to solve a problem or address a particular mischief. Rather, it breathes life into the right [to vote] so that it may be recognized and exercised.” [142] While limitations on the right to vote require justification, Justices Côté and Brown attack the majority for considering that, other than citizenship, “all other specifications [of this right] are necessarily unconstitutional”. [142] Justices Côté and Brown note that other groups are excluded from the franchise―they mention citizens who have never resided in Canada and minors―and argue that these exclusions too must be regarded as examples of Parliament’s permissible pursuit of philosophical objectives. Indeed, they say, majorities in Sauvé and here have acted in furtherance of philosophical views of their own.

Ultimately, ensuring a current relationship between voters and their communities is a pressing and substantial objective because it “ensures reciprocity between exercising the right to vote and bearing the burden of Canadian laws” [152] and “protects the integrity of the Canadian electoral system, which is founded on geographical representation”. [153] This integrity would be undermined by allowing people to vote in constituencies with which they lack a community of interest.

Justices Côté and Brown also consider that the limitation of the right to vote from abroad to those citizens who have not been outside Canada for more than five years is reasonable and therefore proportionate to Parliament’s objective. They insist that, under the majority’s reasoning, no time limit on voting rights could be upheld, including for provincial elections. They add that the majority is wrong to ignore the treatment of expatriates’ voting rights by New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom: “the majority’s patriotism risks descending into exceptionalism”, and blinding it to “some lessons” that “Canada would well have taken … from other countries” [166] (or at any rate from New Zealand, which enfranchised its aboriginal people and women well before Canada did). Indeed, the majority’s position is “highly political, rhetorical”, and “in tension with the majority’s own invocation of internationalism and of a ‘globalized’ world of connectivity and communication”. [167] As for the effects of the legislation, the deleterious ones are minimized since the denial of expatriates’ voting rights “is not … based on moral worth”, [168] while the salutary ones―which consist in the attainment of Parliament’s objectives―are considerable.

As I noted at the outset, I believe that the majority is correct (though Justice Rowe makes some valuable points about provinces and territories). The dissent, I confess, perplexes me.

Let me start by commenting on the dissent’s assertion that the denial of the right to vote to Canadians abroad “is not a distinction based on moral worth”. [168] By my lights, that’s precisely what it is. On their own view, it is the product of “normative conceptions of what the Canadian political community is, and how it can best be protected and made to flourish”. [139] The conception embraced by Parliament in enacting the provisions invalidated in Frank sees the Canadian political community as excluding Canadians abroad, who are consequently less worthy of the franchise. Indeed, they are, according to the dissent, a threat from which the community must be protected, since it is “unfair to Canadian residents for their lawmakers to be elected by long-term non-residents who have no connection of any currency to their electoral district”. [153]

This is utterly wrong. As the Chief Justice rightly observes, many Canadians who live abroad maintain strong ties with Canada (and, I would add, often with the local community where they used to live and, in many cases, intend to return). As the Chief Justice also says, “[c]onversely, there may be citizens who have never left Canada but whose subjective commitment to the country is much weaker and who are less well versed in local issues”. [68] Indeed, though it would be impolitic for a judge to say so, “may be” in this sentence should read “obviously are”. As, for example, Ilya Somin and Bryan Caplan respectively have shown, voters are both ignorant and irrational―rationally so, but ignorant and irrational all the same. Yet we would not generally accept disenfranchising voters on that basis; we do not inquire into the degree of connection a voter has with his or her local community, or the country, before issuing him or her a ballot paper. It is only, it seems, in the case of expatriates that these things actually matter. To me, this is strong evidence that what is at work here is not really a concern with the fairness or integrity of Canada’s electoral system, but a judgment, or rather prejudice, about the moral worth of those Canadians who are taken to have left the community, and must “rejoin[]” [153] before being allowed to take part in the community’s affairs.

Now, it is true that most Canadians abroad do not, in fact, go to the hassle and the expense of requesting a special ballot and returning it to Elections Canada. This means, of course, that the idea of non-resident voters swamping elections and deciding them at the expense of residents is far-fetched if not entirely implausible. But more importantly, as the Chief Justice points out, this means that those who do take the trouble value their involvement in Canada’s political life ― probably more so than a great many of their resident fellow-citizens. In the Chief Justice’s words, they “demonstrate[] a profound attachment to Canada”, [75] and it seems absurd to pretend otherwise on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.

This brings me to another issue: that of the correct approach to deciding whether legislation is unconstitutional because it unjustifiably contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justices Côté and Brown issue what they regard as a profound challenge to the way we not only discuss but also think about the relationship between Charter rights and policies that interfere with them. They note that it is commonplace to speak of such policies as “infringing” or even “violating” rights, only for these “infringements” or “violations” to be upheld, or “saved” by applying section 1 of the Charter. Yet, as they further point out, section 1 provides that the Charter “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” ― limits, not infringements or violations. So we should stop talking about justified infringements, and talk about limits instead. The majority is not interested, observing that the words “limits” and “infringements” have long been used interchangeably. The Chief Justice is probably too polite to note this, but I am not: Justices Côté and Brown themselves spoke in terms of “infringement” as recently as seven months ago, in their excellent dissent in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32.

Still, I take the dissent’s textual point. The word section 1 uses is “limits”, and it arguably makes more sense to say that the state can justifiably limit rights, not that it can violate them. But I fail to see what great change to the way we actually think about rights and scrutinize the state’s possible interference with them follows from this. Contrary to some, indeed quite a few, of the participants in Double Aspect’s 12 Days of Christmas symposium, Justices Côté and Brown show no interest in reconsidering the test for verifying the permissibility of limitations on rights that was first set out in R v Oakes, [1986] 1 SCR 103. They apply the same proportionality analysis, warts, subjectivity, and all, under the label of assessing the “limit” on the right to vote as the majority does when considering “infringement” of this right. They have much to say about the fact that the right to vote is a “positive” one, requiring legislation to “breathe[] life into” it, [142] but that it is true of many of the rights the Charter protects (notably, but by no means only, the various rights of criminal suspects and accused) and, more importantly, it simply does not follow that the legislation that “breathes life into the right” may not fail to do so to a constitutionally required standard. (Similarly, Justices Côté and Brown point out that the legislation imposing a five-year expiry period on expatriates’ franchise replaced that which gave no expatriates the vote. So what? The test of constitutionality is not whether Parliament comes closer to respecting the Charter than it once did, but whether it respects the Charter now.)

The real methodological disagreement between the dissent and the majority (as well as Justice Rowe’s concurrence) has to do with the level of deference each accords Parliament. The majority insists, at the outset, that “[a]ny limit on the right to vote must be carefully scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification”. [1] Although it later wavers a little on this point, its approach is, indeed, one that refuses to take the government’s claims about the need for or usefulness of the legislation it examines on faith. By contrast, the dissent waxes deferential, “eschews rigid and technical application” [124]―it’s not quite clear of what, but presumably of the justification requirements―, and plays up “Parliament’s policy-making expertise”. [126]

Yet here the dissenters’ professed textualism fails them. To repeat, section 1 of the Charter says that “only such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” (emphasis mine) can be countenanced. The constitutional text, therefore, requires a demonstration―not judicial acquiescence on the basis that Parliament knows best. And this requirement, in turn, suggests that, contrary to what Justices Côté and Brown say, Charter rights can only be limited in order to deal with an identifiable problem, to address some specified mischief, and not merely because a legislature thinks that in an ideal political community these rights would be limited in this way. The enactment of the Charter, as a law superior to ordinary legislation, has taken that moral judgment out of the Canadian legislatures’ hands. (To be clear, this is a separate question from that of the permissibility of what used to be called “morals legislation”, which proscribes what the legislature sees as immoral behaviour, such as taking drugs. There is no argument that expatriates act immorally by voting.)

In short, by all means, let’s be careful with our language, and speak of reasonable limits on rights instead justified violations. But let’s also insist that limitations on rights, to qualify as reasonable, must be ones whose justification is capable of being demonstrated, rather than merely asserted, and is in fact demonstrated, rather than taken for granted. Indeed, I think that this substantive concern is rather more important than the semantic one. In Frank, it is the majority, not the dissent, that follows an approach that is closer to that required by the constitution.

In my view, the majority decided Frank more or less as it should have. It correctly insisted that any exclusion from the franchise except the one based on citizenship must be justified. Contrary to the dissent’s strident warnings, it does not follow that no exclusions could ever treated as reasonable limits―only that the justification process for upholding these limits cannot be elided by saying that some limits on the right to vote must obviously be admissible. This goes even for the denial of the right to vote to minors (which, as Ilya Somin, for example, has argued, is not as self-evidently reasonable as the dissenters would like us to think). I think that it would be quite easy to sustain the disenfranchisement of three-year-olds, the dissent’s scaremongering example, should anyone challenge it; but as for the denial of the vote to teenagers, I for one wouldn’t mind seeing the governments put through their justificatory paces.

The majority is also right to be skeptical of the government’s arguments based on an ill-defined “social contract” of which expatriates are allegedly no part. I’m not too impressed with the Chief Justice’s definition of Parliament’s objective in terms of “fairness”―fairness is too capacious a word for my liking, and the dissent’s suggestion that Parliament was pursuing a currency of relationship between the voter and his or her community seems closer to the mark. But one should also acknowledge that objectives that are largely symbolic (or, as Justices Côté and Brown see it, moral) do not lend themselves to easy definition, and so inevitably compromise the quality of the Charter analysis. The majority’s skepticism about the existence of a rational connection between the objective of fairness and disenfranchisement of Canadians abroad is also warranted. Indeed, I would have liked the Chief Justice to have been bold enough to say that, given both the possibility that expatriates maintain current links with Canada and their Canadian communities, and the lack of any assessment of whether any other voters do so, disenfranchising expatriates alone based on their deemed lack of connection to Canada is actually irrational. But the Chief Justice is not the first judge not to want to go there.

I’ll live with that, because the Chief Justice ends up making the right arguments at the “minimal impairment” stage of the analysis. Like I had in criticizing the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in this case, he points out that Canadians abroad can and do maintain close links with Canada; that they are affected by Canadian laws and government policies; that, moreover, “Parliament can change laws on its own initiative and thus alter the extent to which Canadian legislation applies to non-resident citizens”, [72] so that one cannot invoke the limited scope of current extra-territorial legislation to deny expatriates the vote (I had called this “let[ting] the statutory tail wag the constitutional dog”); and that in any event “attempting to tailor Charter rights to the extent to which citizens are burdened, or not burdened, by Canadian laws would be an impossible exercise”. [71] If all this is not enough to qualify the disenfranchisement of expatriates as irrational, than it certainly suffices, as the Chief Justice says, to show that it is grossly overbroad, and not “minimally impairing” of the right to vote.

The Chief Justice’s reasons are not perfect. He does, as the dissent points out, get somewhat carried away in patriotic praise for the Canadian democracy, and there are shades of what I’ve been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” in his claim that “a broad interpretation of” the Charter‘s guarantee of the right to vote “enhances the quality of our democracy and strengthens the values on which our free and democratic state is premised”. [27] Constitutional interpretation must aim at ascertaining the text’s meaning, not at strengthening values or anything of the sort. Still, what the Chief Justice’s opinion for the majority does is substantially in line with the constitutional text, despite its rhetorical imperfections. (And still on the subject of rhetoric, or style: can someone please ask the Chief Justice and his colleagues to stop using the initialism “AGC”? It is a recent innovation―the Court hadn’t done it at all before 2010―and not a good one. It is ugly and has a jargon-y feel that is quite at odds with the Chief Justice’s stated desire to make the Court’s work more accessible, including to laypersons.) But as majority opinions of Supreme Court have gone in the last few years, the one in Frank is up there with the best.

The Supreme Court has held that Canadians who live abroad cannot be disenfranchised based on, in effect, stereotypes about their lack of relationship with their home country. This is a relief. In doing so, it has insisted on carefully and critically examining the government’s claimed reasons for limiting Charter rights, and this is a good thing too, one that doesn’t happen often enough. There is something to learn from the dissenting opinion, too, about our constitutional vocabulary, and I hope that this lesson is not lost just because the substance of that opinion is bitterly disappointing. But the constitution was upheld in Frank, and so right was done. May 2019 bring more of that.

[This post is adapted from ones originally published on January 12 and 13, 2019 at https://doubleaspect.blog/2019/01/12/a-profound-attachment/ and https://doubleaspect.blog/2019/01/13/doing-right-on-rights/]