I Can Vote In Italy's Referendum - Why Are So Many Others Still Disenfranchised?

With the postal deadline for the Italian referendum looming, I weigh up the moral question of to vote or not to vote. And as I do, I will remember that unlike many others, at least I have a choice.

Si or no? That's the question Italians are being asked as they go to the polls this Sunday. Italy's Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has gambled his political future on citizens voting yes to his package of major constitutional reforms, which include curtailing the powers of the Senate, Italy's equivalent of the House of Lords. Those campaigning for a yes vote argue that this is Italy's chance to bring greater stability to its political system, deal with corruption, limit costs and increase fairness, transparency and equal opportunity. But those lobbying for a no vote argue that it will result in the governing party having too much power and not enough accountability.

The main opposition to Renzi's government is Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement. Grillo, a comedian turned politican, has previously called for a referendum on whether Italy should keep the euro and to reconsider the country's role in the European Union. Prime Minister Renzi, leader of the country's centre-left Democratic party, has said he will resign if the vote doesn't go his way. Sound familiar? On Monday, Italy could be the latest country to deliver political shockwaves through 2016. If Brexit was the first film in the franchise and Trump, the sequel, the Italian referendum might yet turn it into a trilogy.

The consequences of the result will reach much further than Italy's shores. Which is why, when my ballot papers dropped through the letterbox a few weeks ago, I felt a weight of responsibility as well as a moral conundrum. I wasn't born in Italy and I have never lived there. Lovely as it would be to retire to a life of olives and red wine, I don't plan on moving there in the future and I wasn't able to decipher my voting papers without a big helping hand from Google translate. So why can I vote in this referendum? I am eligible because having an Italian parent grants me automatic citizenship by birth. But putting the significant and far reaching consequences of this vote aside, is this right or wrong in principle? Should I have a say in the future of a country where I have never lived and one I am not planning to reside in?

Whether different groups of people are eligible to vote varies from election to election and from country to country. Most recently in the EU referendum, British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland were all eligible to vote, providing they were registered to do so and resident in the UK. And yet in Scotland's independence referendum, EU nationals were able to cast their votes due to the fact that eligibility was based on residency and not solely on citizenship. So in an unhappy twist, Scots living outside Scotland were unable to have a say. In England and Wales, you must be 16 in order to register to vote, although you can't cast your ballot until you are 18. But the Scottish independence referendum gave 16 and 17 year olds their first ever opportunity to vote in the UK and a record 3.6 million turned out to do so.

The lowering of the voting age to 16 is the subject of continued campaigning and Votes at 16, a coalition involving the NUS and the British Youth Council, alongside other supportive organisations and politicians, argue that the case for this is now stronger than ever. They have a point. Why should you be excluded from voting when you are expected to pay tax and national insurance and when you can legally take on the responsibility of marriage and joining the armed forces? The exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from the EU referendum was heavily criticised and the howl of protest from this group at the leave result was particularly loud, given that they are likely to endure the consequences of the result for longer than everyone else. Some surveys even indicated that had this age-group been eligible to vote, the final result would have swung the other way.

Britain is the only western European country with a blanket ban on prisoner voting, ignoring successive court judgments on this issue. This debate has been the subject of legal challenge and much political rhetoric in recent years. Prison reform campaigners argue that inmates being able to engage with issues through the ballot box is an important way of encouraging responsibility ahead of a safe return to the community. But former Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed that having to contemplate giving anyone in prison the vote made him feel "physically ill'. To me, prisoners being able to vote as part of their path to rehabilitation seems an odd thing to induce nausea, when there are so many other options to make you feel green around the gills (how about children dying needlessly as the bombs rain down on Aleppo or refugees left to rot in squalid camps?) But Cameron, always the populist, knew when his comments were hitting the right mark. I'm not sure whether the idea ever really made him throw up but I'm pretty sure he knew that pushing for voting rights for prisoners would never be a vote winner.

These issues do not make up the full picture. There are other groups of people who, while legally eligible, feel disenfranchised, disconnected or face other obstacles and this needs tackling too. But when it comes to voting, attitudes continue to shift, resulting in the enfranchisement of more and more people. Electoral reform campaigners have high hopes of achieving their aim of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds, Perhaps this democratic deficit will be addressed by the time my children reach that age. And yet, I still find it hard to believe that only 100 years ago, women were still prohibited from voting in parliamentary elections in the UK and that in Saudi Arabia, women were allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time less than a year ago. So with the postal deadline for the Italian referendum looming, I weigh up the moral question of to vote or not to vote. And as I do, I will remember that unlike many others, at least I have a choice.



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