The overseas vote, Catalonia’s second city

How can we encourage voters abroad to go to the polls?

Over 90% of the Catalans living abroad haven’t voted in any of the most recent elections. Only between 6.6% and 7.5% of all registered residents cast a vote in the last three Catalan or Spanish parliamentary elections. These numbers make your hair stand on end, especially with a referendum on the horizon; even more when you translate the percentages into real numbers. Spain’s National Institute of Statistics counts 212,500 Catalans registered as permanently resident abroad, to whom must be added short-term residents and those who choose not to register. The expatriate Catalan community would be equivalent in size to Catalonia’s second city, with some 260,000 inhabitants.

For the regional elections on 27 September 2015, however, only 21,718 people applied to vote. Many others didn’t get past the ordeal of the so-called vot pregat (literally, “begged-for vote”). This application system requires you to have previously registered with the Spanish consulate, to apply to vote in advance (sometimes having to travel hundreds of miles to do so) —having obtain certificates to submit with the application—, receive your ballots and, finally, hope that your completed ballot arrives in time and to the correct address, all following a tight schedule. Bureaucratic, demotivating, expensive and not guaranteed to work.

Before the vot pregat, turnout was already depressing enough; it had decreased from 20.8% (2006) to 15.5% (2010) in elections to the Catalan parliament. Then, after bringing in the new system, the number fell sharply: last year only 11% applied to vote. And that’s not all: only 14,781 ballots of the 21,718 applied for arrived for the count; in other words, only 7.5% of eligible overseas voters actually voted. In the end, 32% of the ballots sent out never made it back.

It is dramatic for any democracy when more than 90% of eligible voters don’t, but is it because they can’t, as we often read, or in part because they don’t want to? Some are affected by the vot pregat system, as we noted, but there are also citizens who simply aren’t interested in exercising their rights as Catalans. They are emigrants from previous generations and their descendants who want to keep their passports, or have regained them later but who don’t have a specific political concern for the country. Talking of more than 200,000 Catalans who couldn’t vote, as we’ve heard more than once is, therefore, an illusion. Voting requires having an interest in what happens in Catalonia.

So we have two problems that exacerbate each other: a system that is almost impossible to navigate and a good portion of the population which could have little interest in trying. The more difficult it is to navigate, the fewer will try. To improve the situation and adapt to the 21st century, the government has announced that it will bring in electronic voting, although within the framework of Spanish electoral law for want of a native law.

Electronic voting can help us with the technical aspects, but how we do reach voters abroad and how do we motivate them to take part in such an important referendum? Aware of these difficulties and of the impossibility of accessing the existing details of expats, in 2014 the Catalan government created the Register of Catalans Abroad, its own worldwide electoral roll, even if it was originally for statistical and information purposes. The Parliament of Catalonia has also approved a media campaign to increase registrations, since they’re currently still at only a few thousand. In this increasingly connected world, it has to be within our ability to create a register that is of value to Catalans abroad, even on the other side of the globe, so that they can maintain their connection to their homeland and even deepen it with their vote.

With a view to the upcoming independence referendum and constituent elections, we also have to take responsibility as individuals, each of us, to find and connect with those we know abroad. Many of us have a cousin or a friend in London, New York or Buenos Aires whom we could call to encourage them to participate in this decisive referendum. There are also universities, sports clubs, cultural associations, businesses, and other groups and societies that we can get in touch with. Democracy doesn’t just give us rights, but duties too. Wherever we may live, we citizens have a responsibility towards our country’s future. Working to raise awareness from within institutions, but also as individuals, of our duty to the construction of the country will require taking action, joining in and informing everyone we know abroad that we are facing the home stretch of the independence process. And it is waiting for us.

Catalonia’s second city could have a lot to say in 2017. Between us all we need to make sure that they are able to.