In several European states (e.g., Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands) the debate on local voting rights has been linked to the debate on naturalization. The German Constitutional Court, in its ruling in 1990 on this issue, explicitly hinted that the government should make it easier for immigrants to naturalize instead of giving them the right to vote in local elections.
In Belgium and the Netherlands similar trade-offs have been made between nationality law and voting rights. After Belgium liberalized its naturalization legislation in 2001, the debate on local voting rights abated.
What Are the Effects of Granting Voting Rights to Non-National Residents?
Actual Use of Voting Rights
Empirical data on the number of non-national or immigrant voters who exercise their voting rights are available on the basis of exit-polls for some cities in Member States (Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden). Data on the number of registered non-national voters are available for three other countries (Belgium, Ireland, and Luxembourg). From these data it appears that, generally, non-national voters have lower participation rates in local elections than citizens. However, lower participation is not necessarily an expression of less interest or different political traditions. It may just be the result of bureaucratic hurdles such as strict registration requirements that keep immigrant voters from casting their ballot.
Participation rates vary over time, between cities, and between immigrant groups. At times, certain immigrants groups have turned out in proportionally higher numbers than the general population. For instance, Turkish immigrants in Denmark and the Netherlands, generally, have higher participation rates than other immigrant groups. It appears that local political circumstances influence non-national voters’ participation rates and voting patterns. Large numbers of immigrants have used their voting rights. In the relevant countries parties across the political spectrum are actively looking for suitable candidates from immigrant groups in order to attract the immigrant vote. The number of municipal councilors who are non-nationals or are of immigrant origin have clearly increased over time. In Denmark, the number of councilors with third-country backgrounds increased from three in 1981 to 51 in 2001. In Luxembourg, 189 (i.e. six percent) of the candidates in the 2005 elections were non-nationals; 14 were elected.
Voting Rights and Integration
Whether granting voting rights helps immigrants integrate largely depends on how integration is defined. If integration means the level of participation of immigrants in the host society's central institutions (e.g., the labor market, schools, and religious, military, or political institutions), then extending voting rights to immigrants enhances their integration. If one defines integration in normative or emotional terms and cares more about immigrant attitudes than immigrant behavior, the decisive question may be: Have immigrants become more like us? In that perspective those who vote for candidates of their own immigrant group may be perceived as not sufficiently integrated. Of course, this voting behavior could also be seen as the perfect expression of an essential element of democracy: every individual can vote for the representative that in his or her personal view will best understand and represent voters' interests.
It appears from empirical research that having voting rights encourages immigrants to get involved in other political activities. They are more likely to join political parties, trade unions, and other (community) associations than immigrants without voting rights.
Immigrant Political Parties
The fear that immigrants would establish their own parties has turned out to be largely unfounded. In the Netherlands, some immigrant parties or lists participate in each municipal election, but they rarely obtain enough votes for a seat in the municipal council. At the 2014 election a party established by young Moroccan Dutch, presented as a Muslim party, received two of the 45 seats in the municipal council of Rotterdam. The leader of this party had been a city councilor for the Green Party before. Most immigrant politicians and voters apparently see their path to political power through participating in traditional parties or voting for those parties. Ireland presents a striking example. Before the 2004 elections NGOs started a campaign stimulating immigrants to enroll in the Electoral Register, several parties fielded non-EU candidates and a group of 60 asylum seekers founded in their community a local branch of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s largest political party.
Influence of Foreign Governments
Governments of immigrant-origin countries have rarely tried to openly influence the way their nationals or co-ethnics vote. The exceptions have received quite critical press attention, such as Moroccan King Hassan's attempt in 1986 to influence Moroccan nationals in the Netherlands. The king advised them to abstain from voting in the Netherlands’ first municipal elections that allowed non-nationals to participate ("You cannot walk behind two flags"). It was also the first time a large number of Moroccan nationals could vote in a European country. The king’s call contributed to a low turnout of Moroccan voters. In later years, King Hassan changed his mind and advised Moroccan immigrants in Europe to use their democratic rights.
Voting Rights and Naturalization
None of the EU countries with local voting rights have seen naturalization numbers decline. In the Netherlands, the annual number of naturalizations increased from 20,000 in 1986 to 80,000 in 1996, the decade after the country granted municipal voting rights. Most probably, other variables determine the decision to naturalize. These include the loss or the obligation to give up the original nationality, high fees, difficult language and integration tests, emotional ties to the country of origin, or the loss of property and inheritance rights in that country. Immigrants weigh such barriers and disadvantages against citizenship’s perceived advantages, such as visa-free travel, free movement in the European Union, full voting rights, and access to public-service jobs reserved for nationals.
In an early 1990s study on why immigrants in the Netherlands decided to naturalize, two-thirds of those interviewed said that a secure legal status and full voting rights factored into their decision. Only visa-free travel was mentioned more often.
Immigrant Political Power Becomes Visible
Immigrant voters may make the difference. During the Dutch municipal elections of March 2006, immigrant voters turned out in large numbers to express their discontent with the centre-right government’s anti-immigrant policies. Press reports and empirical research indicate that the Social Democratic Party won the local elections in Amsterdam and Rotterdam mainly because of immigrant voters, both naturalized and long-term resident non-nationals.
The relevance of immigrant voters also became clear in the January 2008 elections in the German Land Hessen. The Christian Democrat leader Roland Koch (CDU) openly played on anti-immigrant sentiments in the final phase of his campaign. His party lost twelve percent of the votes and their overall majority, beating the Social Democratic Party (SPD) by a margin of only 3,500 votes. The eligible Turkish-German electorate in Hessen, estimated at 70,000, could well have decided the outcome.
In both countries, leaders of traditional parties became aware that while anti-immigrant agendas will attract some voters, they cannot discount the importance of immigrant voters either. In the Netherlands, immigrants make up between ten and 15 percent of the electorate; the percentage may be even higher in major cities. In cases where the major parties are almost similar in size, the immigrant vote may decide elections. The outcome of the 2006 Dutch municipal elections could be considered proof that granting local voting rights has contributed to immigrants’ political integration. For those who worry about including immigrants in society, this development may well confirm their worst fears.
This text is part of the policy brief "Interner Link: Voting rights and political participation of non-national immigrants".