Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball holds his granddaughter after winning the provincial election in May 2019. Young people are leaving the province for jobs and opportunities, but should still be allowed to vote in provincial elections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

How to inject youth into Newfoundland and Labrador’s broken, greying democracy

What does it mean to be a voter in a Canadian federation increasingly defined by wealth inequality and economic migration?

As public policy scholars, we argue that politicians, policy-makers and citizens alike need to start rethinking how to ensure everyone’s voice is heard in a regionally diverse federation. More specifically, we think that provinces have good grounds for extending voting rights to expatriate citizens. In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, extending the vote is particularly warranted.

That’s because of two issues plaguing Newfoundland and Labrador: People are leaving the province, and those who remain are growing older.

As two expatriate Newfoundland and Labradorians — one of us in Australia — we watched from the sidelines during this spring’s provincial election. It was so defined by negativity and an absence of social vision that it inspired a playful CBC podcast with the question: “Does anyone actually want to win the election?”

That things played out this way came as little surprise. The province is trapped between a need to get its financial affairs in order and politicians who look to spending increases instead of long-term solutions as a means of winning elections. The ruling Liberals, for example, opened their campaign with an extra $152 million for the budget, including a cut to the deficit reduction levy which had only come into effect in 2016.

Not sustainable

Every citizen of the province knows this approach is unsustainable. To put the fiscal situation in perspective, Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial debt is a whopping $21,221 per capita, the highest in Canada, and its debt servicing costs as a per cent of provincial revenues stands at 13.8 per cent compared to the next highest province, Quebec, at eight per cent.

The graph below shows that Newfoundland and Labradorians face a tricky demographic challenge.

The graph vividly portrays how rapidly Newfoundland is growing older. Author provided

The share of the population under 50 years of age has been shrinking for the past 45 years. Since 2000, the population in age quintiles (five-year intervals) has declined in every age group below 50, while increasing in every age quintile above 50. While the population, post-2000, has remained relatively stable, the composition of the province’s population is vastly different.

As the population ages, so too does the median voter.

Citizens who are older are understandably less likely to support long-term reforms that will cut into their more immediate interests. This means that proposing tough solutions to current fiscal problems can make it hard to win elections, especially if there is a rural/urban divide separating younger and older voters.

Unlike Newfoundland’s fiscally tough solutions of the past, we propose a solution that more greatly strengthens attachment to home: Allowing Newfoundlanders and Labradorians living outside the province to vote.

Youth injection

To cast ballots in Newfoundland and Labrador elections, voters must be provincial residents the day before polling day. We propose to extend the vote in a simple, transparent and inclusive manner to anyone 18 or older who has ever attended school in the province.

Why former students? First, many children of Newfoundland and Labrador have been lured or forced abroad to scratch out a living or seek their fortune. All have been victims of the lack of opportunity at home. Many of these people wish to return, and many do return, in their more senior years. Why should their voices not be heard at the provincial ballot box?

A recent study published in the Journal of Labor Economics suggests that the mobility of these workers has boosted pay in their province of origin. Wages rise because employers at home must hike pay to prevent more workers from leaving. This is a real economic gain, on top of any money that workers who leave their home province send back home.

Second, there is precedent — national voter eligibility is not determined by location, but rather by citizenship. The electoral district you vote in federally is determined by your current residential address, but your eligibility to vote is preserved by the government of Canada even when you are living abroad.

Third, consider the civic education that has been instilled in these individuals through the province’s school system. They have a respect for the people and the land, the traditions and the ambitions of their home province.

Residents arrive to vote in the provincial election at a church in Deer Lake, NL, on May 16, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Generally speaking, we extend the vote to people because they are either directly affected by the collective decisions of government or because they are subject to the laws of that government. Expatriates easily satisfy the first of these two conditions. Provincial policies affect both their ability to return home and their loved ones who remain behind.

To be sure, extending the franchise is not a magic bullet that will immediately solve the province’s problems. And there are no doubt further questions about the voting mechanisms needed to make this proposal a reality.

But we think extending the vote to expatriates strongly aligns with the province’s values. It could also help nudge its politics closer to long-term solutions that respect the roots and rights of all Newfoundland and Labradorians past, present and future.

[ Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter. ]