22.5.2014 | Von:
Kees Groenendijk

Introduction: Voting Rights and Other Political Rights

The right to vote and stand for election is only one out of a range of other political rights, such as the freedom to express political opinions, the right to demonstrate, the right to join or establish a political party or other associations, the right to strike and be active in trade unions or other bodies representing workers and the right to work in the public service.[1]
Wahllokal in Redditch/Großbritannien: In Großbritannien können auch ausländische Staatsangehörige aus bestimmten Drittstaaten an Kommunalwahlen teilnehmen.Polling Station in Redditch/Great Britain: In Great Britain some Third Country Nationals have Municipal Voting Rights. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Voting rights are important political rights because they grant access to the formation of political power and influence the laws and policies of the municipality or the country of residence. The right to vote also reflects the recognition of the immigrant as an equal member of the civitas (citizenry) entitled to participation in the decision making of the community or the society. Historically, both elements – political power and recognition as a full member of the community – played an important role each time voting rights were extended to new groups: men without land or capital, male workers, women, younger people and nationals of other states. Some of those extensions were the outcome of prolonged social and political action by the persons concerned; other extensions were granted from 'above' in the general interest or with special party interests in mind but without long struggle from 'below'.

Voting Rights for Non-Nationals: from Exclusion to Inclusion

The traditional view in international law is that political activities of non-nationals [non-citizens] can be restricted. This idea is related to the gradual development and strengthening of nation-states in the 19th century: only nationals on the basis of their special exclusive legal relationship with the state could vote and participate in political decision making. Nationals of other states were considered as outsiders and thus excluded. The two World Wars and the related strong nationalism reinforced this idea. This explains why in the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) there is a special provision (Article 16) stipulating that the provisions on the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly and association shall not prevent "the High Contracting Parties from imposing restrictions on the political activity of aliens." Governments thus could curb political speech or writing by non-citizens (foreigners), prohibit membership of political parties and expel foreigners who went on strike or undertook 'undesired political activities'.

With the closer cooperation of European states and large scale immigration this view became gradually more problematic.[2] The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe already in 1977 advised to delete Article 16 ECHR.[3] This advice has not been heeded yet, but the provision has become a dead letter. A similar provision was not included in later human rights treaties. But the European and the UN Human Rights Convention guarantee the right to vote and stand for election only for citizens. In 1992 the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level.[4] This Convention provides in Article 6 that "every foreign resident" irrespective of his nationality after five years of lawful residence has the right to vote and stand for election in local authority elections under the same conditions as nationals. The convention’s preamble refers to the need to improve integration of immigrants and observes that immigrants generally have the same duties as citizens at the local level. The convention can be seen as an implicit partial amendment of Article 16 ECHR. In March 2014 only five EU Member States had ratified the convention (Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands and Sweden) and five others had signed (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovenia and UK). Italy excluded the provision on municipal voting rights from its ratification. Germany has not signed the convention because of constitutional concerns [5], but could have followed the example of Italy, accepting the provisions on other political rights.

This text is part of the policy brief "Voting rights and political participation of non-national immigrants".


This brief is partly based on three earlier publications of the same author: Groenendijk (2008), Groenendijk (2011) and Groenendijk (2014).
Frowein and Peukert (1997), p. 487.
Parl. Ass. Recommendation 799(1977) on the political rights of aliens, Recommendation 903(1980) on the right of aliens to vote and stand in local authorities elections and Recommendation 951(1982) on voting rights of nationals of Council of Europe Member States; cfr. the limited Recommendation R(81)18 concerning participation at municipal level adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 6 November 1981.
ETS No. 144 adopted at 5 February 1992.
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