A question for referendum: should foreigners vote in national elections?

Be Heard Flickr rachel_titirigaBy Thomas Huddleston, MPG Programme Director on Migration and Integration

In collaboration with Serge Kollwelter, ASTI Luxembourg and Kate McMillan, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Only four countries in the world currently grant equal voting rights to foreigners. Now an even greater debate has emerged to grant voting rights in national elections in Luxembourg, where the impact of such a decision would be the greatest of all MIPEX countries, since 44% of the population are not Luxembourgian citizens. We at MIPEX turn to its comparative policy network to understand why countries may choose to answer “Yes!” in the case of New Zealand and, perhaps soon, “Ja!” in the case of Luxembourg.

“Opening political and civil rights is the sign of a confident country of immigration”

So concludes the MIPEX overview of political participation policies. But one may wonder what all the fuss is about! Foreign citizens represent a significant but relatively small share of the population in most countries of immigration. Kees Groenendijk’s review of the effects of local voting rights in Europe concluded that few of the supposedly negative effects often raised by opponents ever actually play out in practice—Naturalisation rates are not lower (on the contrary); the influence of foreign governments is not higher; immigrant/ethnic parties do not take off; the political status quo is not overturned. Voting rights for foreigners may even lead to more inclusive social policies for both national and foreign citizens, according to one recent Swedish study.

Still, politicians often make a lot of fuss about granting voting rights to foreigners, as witnessed just this week with furor over a MIPEX-inspired proposal to expand local voting rights in Malta. As noted in an earlier MIPEX blog, the political enfranchisement of foreign residents takes time, requires public support, often faces constitutional obstacles and political opposition, as recently played out in Greece—the first country in recent history to disenfranchise immigrant voters.

Now an even greater debate has emerged to grant voting rights in national elections in Luxembourg, where the impact of such a decision would be the greatest of all MIPEX countries, since 44% of the population are not Luxembourgian citizens.


Does MIPEX argue that national voting rights promote integration?

Although MIPEX asks in its policy questionnaire about foreigners’ right to vote in national elections, countries are not currently scored on this indicator since no MIPEX country granted national voting rights to all foreigners, until the inclusion of New Zealand in the network in 2014. Only four countries in the world currently grant equal voting rights to foreigners: New Zealand to all permanent residents after one year of residence (the most inclusive policy), Chile after five years, Malawi after seven years, and Uruguay after eight years. A few other countries grant national voting rights to only certain foreign citizens:

  • Commonwealth citizens can vote in all elections in the United Kingdom and most Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean
  • Ireland entitles UK citizens to vote in all elections
  • Portugal can grant some Brazilian citizens with ‘special status’ to vote in all elections


Expanding national voting rights for EU citizens has recently been a major topic of debate on EUDO-Citizenship, a website consortium including MPG. We at MIPEX are not yet jumping into this debate. At this point, we turned to its comparative policy network to understand why countries may choose to answer “Yes!” in the case of New Zealand (our new partner Kate McMillan of Victoria University of Wellington) and, perhaps soon, “Ja!” in the case of Luxembourg (our longstanding partner ASTI represented here by Serge Kollwelter).


Serge Kollwelter on Luxembourg: an EU Member State unlike any other

SergeWhile the Maastricht treaty granted local voting rights to EU citizens in their country of residence, Luxembourg’s legislation expanded this democratic enfranchisement to all foreign citizens – both EU and non-EU citizens. What’s more, Luxembourg also granted them active voting rights, meaning the right to be both a voter and a candidate for all local posts, including mayor. One key characteristics of the voting in Luxembourg, as in Belgium, is that voting is obligatory and national citizens are automatically registered on the electoral rolls. Foreign citizens who fulfill the residence requirement can voluntarily register on the electoral roles, at which point they are also obliged to vote.

Are local voting rights enough for immigrant voters?

In the 2011 local elections, only 17% of eligible non-EU citizens (5 years of residence) were registered to vote, which represents a slow increase from 12% in 1999 to 15% in 2005. Several reasons can explain these modest results: the procedure to certify the five years’ of residence, the absence of a culture of voter registration in Luxembourg, ineffective awareness-raising campaigns, and a very early registration deadline (three months before the elections).

Why push for national voting rights?

Building on earlier demands for foreigners’ voting rights in the 1980s, national voting rights came on the agenda through a independent and volunteer-driven campaign called ‘Making Luxembourg’ bringing together the social partners and several NGOs since the autumn of 2012. Following a major January 2013 conference promoted by the Chamber of Commerce, the debate took off in the press and civil society and eventually showed up in the programmes of certain political parties for the October 2013 national elections. Although the public debate was rather civilised (aside from a few rants on social media), opinion polls show a slight deterioration in public support from a majority in 2012 to around 45% at present.

Business leaders focus on the argument that national voting rights would rebalance the electorate, which is currently dominated by the elderly and public sector employees [with Luxembourgian citizenship]. The new three-party government coalition has proposed a consultative referendum of Luxembourgian citizens that address the following democratic questions: national voting rights for foreigners, term-limits for ministers, and the separation of Church and State. The government will take the results into account when proposing changes to the constitution, which will then be submitted to a binding referendum.


Kate McMillan on New Zealand: no fear of immigrant voters

KateThe voter registration and turnout rates for permanent residents in New Zealand is lower than for New Zealand citizens, but still rather impressive. One of the only studies measuring immigrant voter turnout was a longitudinal survey by the New Zealand Immigration Service of around 28,300 new immigrants. They found that the voter registration rate before the 2008 elections stood at 87% for permanent resident newcomers after 36 months in New Zealand, compared to 93.7% for the entire eligible electorate. The majority (55%) of these registered non-citizen voters voted in that 2008 election, compared to the 79.5% overall turnout. Compulsory voter registration likely played a significant role in these numbers.

Local and national voting rights: no big deal?

In a forthcoming book chapter, Kate McMillan argues that the New Zealand experience has much to contribute to international debates about the benefits and risks associated with granting national voting rights to foreign citizens. Similar to Groenendijk in Europe, McMillan finds evidence in New Zealand that national voting rights has generated little controversy or attention since its adoption in 1975. Extending national voting rights to foreigners seems to be neither an incentive nor disincentive to naturalisation. There is little evidence of a rise of foreign influence in elections. Even with strikingly high levels of immigration and a proportional representation electoral system, no immigrant party has taken off in New Zealand politics. The full range of political parties compete for the immigrant vote, which helps to explain the low levels of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the country.

While other countries may conclude that they have little to fear from extending national voting rights, the political process of granting these rights in New Zealand in 1975 arose from several factors relatively unique to its history. At the same time as Australia and Canada chose to remove earlier voting rights for British subjects in the face of increasingly diverse immigration flows, New Zealand chose to expand them to all of its permanent resident arrivals, who were still predominantly immigrating from Europe and Australia, as New Zealand was yet to diversify its migrant source countries. Although Australia and Canada developed their well-known ‘multiculturalism’ policies around this same time, only New Zealand extended the principles of non-discrimination to voting. Interestingly, non-citizen voting has not become controversial, even as immigration to New Zealand has grown larger and more diverse, with one in four New Zealanders born abroad according to the 2013 census.


Lessons learned for other countries?

CountryNamePlates flickr by United Nations PhotoMcMillan’s analysis of New Zealand confirms that voting rights tend to become relatively uncontroversial after reform and gain general support within the population and mainstream political parties. Most attempts to disenfranchise foreign citizens fail because the democratic norms of the country have changed. For example, a 2013 briefing by the well-known UK campaigning group Migration Watch led to some scaremongering that the potential one million Commonwealth citizens in the UK could hypothetically determine the outcome of the election (if they actually registered and turned out to vote). The government response was cool and confident:

“The right to vote in UK elections for Commonwealth citizens who live here reflects our close historical ties with Commonwealth countries.”   

But the political process of reform to enfranchise foreign citizens may be more likely to succeed where general political trust is high and the politicisation of immigration is relatively low. Non-discrimination arguments are relatively successful when the public believes that foreign citizens deserve equal treatment and equal rights. McMillan notes that the principle of non-discrimination was the main argument in favour of national voting rights from the two of only three submissions on the issue to the relevant Committee back in the 1970s. Interestingly, the same non-discrimination logic prevailed at the same time in the Nordic countries to expand local voting rights from only Nordic citizens to all foreign citizens—and still resonates today where local voting rights are extended to EU—but not non-EU—citizens (e.g. Austria, France, Germany, and Italy).

However, the increasing diversification, unpredictability, and politicisation of immigration flows can create major political obstacles to the extension of voting rights, as is the case today in France and Greece. Just as McMillan observes in Australia and Canada, so does Hiroshi Motomuri trace a similar history in the United States as the increase and diversification in immigration flows lead to the end of equal rights (including voting rights) for (European) newcomers who declared their intention to naturalise. This argument may not apply to Luxembourg, where the overwhelming majority of foreign citizens are EU citizens coming from neighbouring countries and speaking one of the country’s official languages. Indeed, the government programme also calls for further liberalisation of the citizenship law. The experience of New Zealand and other developed democracies reiterate the point for MIPEX that expanding voting rights for foreigners is indeed a good indicator of a country’s confidence in itself as a country of immigration.