Promoting immigrants' political participation is the sign of a confident country of immigration. Restrictive policies disenfranchise 10 million non-EU citizens from voting and engage few others through weak consultative bodies and funding for immigrant organisations.
Who are disenfranchised from voting?
Around 10 million non-EU adults (aged 15+) are disenfranchised in 13 EU countries, according to 2014 data. That's 3.5 million people in DE (around 5% of the adult population), 2.7 in IT (5.4%), 2.2 in FR (4%), around 500,000 in GR (5.6%), 450,000 in AT (6.4%), 275,000 in LV (17%), 225,000 in CZ (2.6%), as well as thousands in CY (6.3%), BG, HR, MT, PL and RO. The same is true for foreign citizens in CA, JP, TU and US. In the US in 2013, that's 21.9 million people disenfranchised or around 7% of the total population and around 10% of the population in states like CA (4.8 million), TX (2.9), NY (1.9), FL (1.7), NJ, DC, MD, AZ and NV.
Do immigrants have comparable rights and opportunities to participate in political life?
Political participation is a slight area of weakness for integration policy across countries. Most immigrants, especially foreigners, have few opportunities to inform and improve the policies that affect them daily, since most authorities design policies ‘for’ them and are not informed by or accountable to them. On average, immigrants are slightly more discouraged than encouraged to participate through the standard civic channels, limited local voting rights for (non-EU) foreigners, weak consultative bodies and poorly supported immigrant organisations. Immigrants' political opportunities differ enormously from country-to-country, especially between Western and Central Europe. Generally in AU, NZ and Western Europe, immigrants enjoy greater voting rights, stronger consultative bodies, more support for immigrant organisations and more outreach from mainstream organisations and authorities. Outside Europe, political participation policies are further ahead in AU & NZ than CA & US and in KR than JP. In contrast, immigrants in Central Europe, Baltics, CY, MT and TU enjoy nearly none of these rights unless they (can) naturalise. Political participation is missing from their integration strategies, despite European norms and regional promising practices (CZ, EE, LT, SI).
Immigrants’ political opportunities are not getting much better over time (only +1 on average since 2007). Among the few major changes, DK and LU took a greater lead, while NO and NL undermined this area of strength in their integration policies. One new country of immigration (CZ) started the process of political participation, while another (HU) further restricted opportunities for foreigners. Overall, promoting political participation is slowly becoming part of integration strategies, as countries show renewed interest in voting rights and consultative bodies. Future reform will often require greater political will (e.g. CA, FR, UK, US) or constitutional reforms/cases (AT, DE, PT, ES).
- Non-EU nationals after 3-5 years can stand as local candidates in 11 EU countries, vote locally in 15, regionally in 5, and nationally in 2 (certain groups in PT & UK), with overall IE and the Nordics granting the most inclusive voting rights in Europe
- Outside the EU, immigrants can also stand in 3 more (IS, NO and CH cantons), vote locally in 6 more (AU, IS, KR, NO, NZ, CH), regionally in 4 more (KR, NO, NZ, CH) and nationally in NZ, the most democratically inclusive destination for immigrants in the world
- Voting rights are long fought (e.g. AT, FR, DE, GR, MT, CH) and hard won: in CZ in 2001, EE, LT and SI in 2002, LU and SK in 2003, BE in 2004 and again in LU in 2011. Movements are even pushing for the revival of these long-repealed rights in CA and US
- Once passed, voting rights are here to stay: hard to obtain, but even harder to revoke. GR, the only country to make significant progress in recent years (+15 in 2010) became in 2013 the first country in recent history to repeal voting rights for foreigners
- Immigrants are guaranteed the same basic political liberties as national citizens in JP, traditional countries of immigration and all Western European countries (with a minor exception in IS)
- All 11 EU countries in Central Europe and TU deny non-EU foreigners some of their basic political liberties, such as joining a political party or founding a political association
- These restrictions are slow to change and depend on courts or politicians seeing immigrants as benefits to the country's democratic order (e.g. 2012 CZ revision) and not as threats (e.g. 2012 HU political party restriction)
- Immigrants can be consulted through local consultative bodies in 24 MIPEX countries, national bodies in only 13 and, since 2009, at EU level
- New and sometimes innovative structures continue to be founded in both old and new destination countries (new in CZ, EE, FR, GR, JP, IE, LT, NL, UK, US, projects in Central Europe, soon MT)
- Most bodies are not strong and independent enough to create meaningful opportunities for immigrants to improve policies. These bodies, especially new ones, tend to be weak, government-led, sometimes government-appointed and too poorly funded to engage immigrants and represent their diverse interests
- Bodies can quickly come and go, based solely on whether or not the government is willing to listen to them. Government disinterest recently led to the closure of KIM in NO and LOM in NL, the two strongest bodies in existence. Bodies with weak powers and public commitment can aggravate problems of trust, interest and professionalism for immigrants and policymakers
- Immigrants in 27 MIPEX countries can get some funding for their political activities, while those in 19 get mostly ad hoc information about their political rights
- Most funding and information is provided in Northwest Europe, CA, KR, NZ, and PT
- Funding for immigrant organisations also tends to come and go (DK, NL, ES, UK), depending on government's priorities and not on community needs
Best Case & Worst Case
This is a composition of national policies found in 2014 in at least one of the 38 countries
When states open political opportunities, all residents can participate in democratic life. A newcomer enjoys the same civil liberties as national citizens. After a limited number of years of legal residence, she can stand in local elections and vote in local, regional and even national elections. She can be elected and even lead a strong and independent immigrant consultative body in her community, region, or for the whole country. The state informs her of her political rights and supports the emergence of immigrant civil society.
An immigrant cannot contribute to the political decisions that most affect him in the city, region, and country where he lives. The state restricts his basic civil rights. He cannot found a political association, join a party, or work as a journalist. Only nationals (and, in EU Member States, EU nationals) have the chance to vote. He lives in a city where government does not even consult with immigrants. The state does not implement any policies to encourage him to participate in democratic life. If he wants to organise his fellow immigrants, he will have to create and fund this migrant-run organisation without any guaranteed state support.
How many non-EU immigrants are eligible to vote?
More inclusive voting rights lead to higher shares of enfranchised non-EU citizens, according to rough 2011/2 estimates for 24 EU countries. Inclusive voting rights have expanded the franchise to nearly all non-EU citizens in EE, FI, and IE at local level (and in NZ at all levels). Large numbers of non-EU citizens have also been enfranchised at local level in DK, NL, SE (around 85%) as well as in BE and LU (around 2/3). More restrictive voting rights have enfranchised only a minority of non-EU citizens in LT (14%) and HU (25%). Large numbers of non-EU nationals have used the vote when countries have granted them this right, although registration rates are generally lower than for national citizens but often similar or higher than for EU citizens.
Looking at both enfranchised and naturalised non-EU citizens in 2011/2, the most politically inclusive countries emerge as NL, SE, IS, PT, NO and BE as well as several Central European countries with small long-settled communities (HR, PL, LT, SK, SI). FR and the UK are only halfway favourable because of voting rights restrictions, while DK, EE, FI, IE, LU so far qualify as 'second-class' citizenship countries, with an inclusive local franchise but low shares of naturalisation. The most politically exclusive countries emerge as AT, DE, IT, CH and Southeast Europe.
What other factors explain whether immigrants become politically active?
- Generally high levels of civic engagement in Nordics, Benelux, and English-speaking countries
- Around half are university-educated in IE, UK, LU, BG, PL, EE
- Many from highly developed countries in HR, SI, Baltics, GR, AT, DE
- Most long-settled in Northwest Europe and Baltics
- Sizeable number of humanitarian migrants more politically active in long-term in Nordics, AT, BE, DE, GR, MT, NL, US
Are immigrants participating in political life?
Long-settled non-EU-born adults seem on average almost as likely to participate politically as non-immigrants with similar levels of education. In the 2000s, 37% of long-settled residents (10+ years' stay) reported recently taking part in a political party, association, petition, demonstration or contacting a politician, compared to 43% for non-immigrants. Political participation was generally equitable for immigrants in the Nordics, Benelux, FR, ES and UK and actually higher than for non-immigrants in HR, IE and PT. The level of political participation was also generally similar comparing the university-educated (53% on average for immigrants) and just slightly lower comparing the low-educated (22% on average for immigrants). The gaps in political participation levels were greatest between immigrants and non-immigrants in AT/DE/CH, EE, SI, and between high- and low-educated immigrants in AT, DK, GR and LU.
The link between political participation policies and rates is probably not direct. It is clear that no trade-off exists between promoting political participation among foreigners and promoting naturalisation. Actually, political participation policies tend to be stronger and non-EU immigrants slightly more likely to naturalise in countries with inclusive naturalisation policies.
What do we learn from robust studies?
Immigrants' voter registration and participation rates are generally lower than for national citizens. Encouragingly, their participation often increases as they spend more time in the country and naturalise. Immigrant voters also tend to vote and join mainstream political parties. The few studies on political participation find that targeted policies and the acquisition of nationality may potentially boost participation rates for certain immigrant groups. One study (Aleksynska 2010) finds that more extensive political participation policies, as measured by MIPEX, are related to higher levels of political participation for immigrants from developed countries, for newcomers (≤20 years’ residence) and for Muslim immigrants. Another (Thorkelson 2015) finds that countries with inclusive integration policies tend to have higher levels of non-electoral political participation among the first and second generation as well as among non-immigrants. Other studies do not find that political participation policies are related to all immigrants’ intention to vote, voter turnout or formal or informal political participation (see Bilgili et al. 2015).