Voting rights without a passport: an opportunity for integration?

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(© Image: Depositphotos)
(© Image: Depositphotos)
In Sweden, immigrants are allowed to participate in regional elections even if they don’t have a Swedish passport. Researchers at the University of Basel recently investigated whether this affects naturalization numbers. Their findings could also be of interest for Switzerland.

In most countries, the right to participate in the democratic process is reserved for citizens, so anyone who wants to be able to vote must first go through the naturalization process. So far, that has also largely been the case in Switzerland, though certain municipalities and cantons have allowed foreign residents to vote, at least on certain bills.

In Sweden, all foreign nationals are permitted to vote in regional elections after a certain duration of residency, even without Swedish citizenship. EU citizens receive the right to vote as soon as they take up residence. Foreign nationals from other countries must have lived in the country for at least three years to receive the right to vote.

The team of researchers examined whether and to what extent this decoupling of voting rights and citizenship influences the motivation to become naturalized, which is generally regarded as an indicator of successful integration. The study is part of the National Center of Competence in Research nccr - on the move . The researchers from the University of Basel Faculty of Business and Economics, the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim and the University of Malmö recently published their results in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Participation in democracy as a goal

The researchers hypothesized two possible effects: "On the one hand, we expected that people would be less likely to seek citizenship because they are allowed to vote even without it. On the other hand, we suspected that the experience with voting could be an additional motivator for further integration in the host country, leading to eventual naturalization," says Alois Stutzer, Professor of Political Economics at the University of Basel.

Their analysis of the Swedish data on naturalization provides evidence for both hypotheses. The most significant predictor of whether a person was more or less likely to seek Swedish citizenship after receiving the right to vote was their country of origin. For refugees and individuals from countries with a low standard of living (according to the Human Development Index, HDI), experience with voting seems to serve as an additional motivator to become naturalized. In contrast, individuals from countries with a high standard of living were less likely to seek citizenship if they had previously received the right to vote.

"For individuals from countries with a lower HDI, participating in the free democratic process is often a new experience," says Alois Stutzer. A Swedish passport also provides additional advantages beyond political participation, such as greater freedom to travel with regard to visa requirements. For individuals from countries with a higher HDI, the right to vote represents one important goal of citizenship that has already been achieved, thus reducing the urgency and appeal of the naturalization process. "For both groups, it is evidently the case that they value the right to vote, but with different motivations and with correspondingly different effects on the likelihood of naturalization," Stutzer concludes.

Implications for Switzerland

Here in Switzerland, too, there is frequent discussion of whether foreign nationals should be allowed to take part in referendums or elections, and to what extent. Alois Stutzer has no desire to make recommendations for Swiss policy, but he notes that it might be worth paying attention to their evaluation of the data from Sweden: "The strength of the study is that it provides reliable empirical evidence without regard for views or political convictions."

Switzerland’s direct democracy differs significantly from the Swedish system, of course. But Stutzer suspects that similar mechanisms underlie perceptions about the right to vote in both Switzerland and Sweden. For the many foreign nationals from more developed countries, receiving the right to vote could reduce their efforts to gain citizenship.

For former refugees, on the other hand, the right to vote might serve as a starting point for faster integration in Switzerland as well. "There is empirical evidence that democratic values are strengthened by experiences with democracy," the professor explains. Democratic socialization - experiencing the mechanisms and rules of a democracy - is an important part of understanding the system. Stutzer is convinced that "the quality and acceptance of this form of government depend on it."

The discussion about decoupling voting rights from other criteria has already come up in Switzerland in the context of voting rights for 16-year-olds, in which the right to vote is considered separately from the age of majority. "Here, too, it’s worth asking what effects early experience has on democratic socialization," Stutzer suggests. He and his team now hope to examine how voting rights for non-Swiss citizens in the Canton of Vaud affect naturalization numbers.

Original publication

Michaela Slotwinski, Alois Stutzer und Pieter Bevelander
From participants to citizens? Democratic voting rights and naturalisation behaviour.
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2023), doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2023.2193863