Last Thursday, Canadians, Irish, Kenyans, Australians, Indians, Jamaicans and many others voted in the British general election. No, it wasn't some postal ballot fraud that's soon to be investigated. It was a perfectly legal exercise of British law that gives Irish and Commonwealth citizens who are U.K. residents the right to vote.
It gets even better, or depending on your point of view, even more absurd. They can also run for Parliament -- still without being citizens. In theory, Britain could one day, though not this year, have an Australian prime minister, a cabinet of Kenyans and a Parliament full of Canadians.
The reason -- as with most British laws that make little sense -- is historical. The 1918 Representation of the People Act ruled that only "British subjects" who were residents in the U.K. could vote in elections. A "subject" was anyone from one of the many countries that then owed allegiance to the Crown. Those countries, now known as the Commonwealth, kept this right after independence. The Irish kept it even after they left the Commonwealth in 1949.
Asked why he could cast the ballot in Britain last week, one Irishman angrily told me: "600 years of oppression is why." Others brought up tradition, emphasizing, as one Canadian voter put it after casting his ballot, "our close links" and saying that this ritual, bizarre by the standard of most other countries, was "symbolic of our shared constitutional history." Sure, when the queen's representative opens the Canadian Parliament, but choosing the leaders of another country seems to stretch the meaning of symbolism.
It's not as if the colonials return the favor. Surprisingly Ireland, formerly the most feisty "subject" nation of all, gave British citizens who reside in the Republic the franchise in 1985. But others have withdrawn any reciprocity -- Canada in 1970 and Australia in 1984.
Why does a nation so fiercely protective of its sovereignty -- walk into any pub and ask locals what they think of the European Union -- put up with foreigners voting in their elections? Other than "tradition," the electoral commission gave me no answer. Nostalgia may explain it, since the law harks back to a time when the sun never set on the British empire (or electorate). But more likely, once in power, no government wants to anger a part of the electorate that may have voted for it.
No one knows how, or how many of, the foreigners voted, although unofficial estimates put the numbers at a not-insignificant few percent. As politicians increasingly chase those magic extra few hundred votes in swing constituencies, expect more attention to be paid.