When the right to vote and the right to run for political office do not coincide

By Nenad Stojanović (University of Lucerne), GLOBALCIT collaborator


Ignazio Cassis’ renunciation of his Italian citizenship has re-launched the debate on the meaning of political rights – and, in particular, the right to run for political office – in Switzerland. According to Cassis, his decision was necessary – politically, although not legally – in order to be elected to the Federal Council. At the same time, Cassis did not see dual citizenship as an obstacle to vote or to run as a candidate to the Federal Parliament. This episode shows that the right to vote and the right to run for political office are not necessarily aligned. 

In life we tend to simplify a reality that is often very complex. So it is in politics, too, and in particular when we think of political rights. We normally believe that once we reach a certain age (usually the major age at 18 years), every citizen should be able to participate in elections both as a voter and as a candidate. We also believe that elected politicians should represent all citizens. But this is not always the case. There are at least four possible variants to this scenario.

1.Eligible citizens are only a fraction of those who have the right to vote. The elected represent all citizens. 

In Norway, for instance, every citizen can vote upon reaching the major age; however, only citizens who have resided in the country for at least 10 years are eligible. In Italy, all citizens who are at least 18 years can vote for the Chamber of Deputies and all citizens who are at least 25 years old can vote for the Senate too; however, citizens must be at least 25 years old in order to be elected to the Chamber of Deputies and 40 to be elected to the Senate. (The Italian Parliament is currently debating a reform that would align the right to vote with the right to be elected.) In these cases, the elected represent all citizens and not only those who can vote.

2. Eligible citizens are only a fraction of those who have the right to vote. The elected represent only citizens who are eligible.

In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the two entities of the Balkan country (the other being the Serb Republic), all citizens can vote for the candidates to the Presidency upon reaching the major age. However, only citizens who declare themselves as Bosniaks (also known as Bosnian Muslims) or as Croats are eligible. (In the Serb Republic there is also an election for the third member of the Presidency.) The logic of such a system, however, is that the politician elected to the Presidency represents only his or her ethnic group and not all citizens. Representatives of the Jewish and Roma communities, as well as many other Bosnian citizens who do not belong to any of the three official ethnic groups, have protested against this system that in practice denies them the right to stand as candidates for the highest political office of their country.

3. Citizens with the right to vote are only a fraction of those who are eligible. The elected represent all citizens.

Every Swiss citizen is eligible to the National Council in one of the 26 electoral constituencies that correspond to the cantons. However, citizens can vote only in one constituency, in their canton of residence or, for the Swiss residing abroad, in the canton where one has registered to vote. For example, a Swiss citizen living in Bern, who has the right to vote in Bern only, can be elected by the citizens of Ticino on an electoral list presented in Ticino only. In other words, this candidate does not have the right to vote for himself or herself. This is not necessarily a paradox, since the idea is that the members of the National Council, also known as the People’s Chamber, should represent the Swiss people and not specific cantons. One recent example is that of Tim Guldimann, a former Swiss ambassador in Berlin, where he still resides. He was elected to the National Council in 2015, on a Social-Democratic list in the canton of Zurich. He was not obliged, neither before nor after the election, to take residence in the canton of Zurich.

4. Citizens with the right to vote are only a fraction of those who are eligible. The elected represent only citizens who are eligible.

In Denmark, according to the 1848 Constitution, the right to run for office was guaranteed to all male citizens older than 25, while the right to vote was given only to male citizens older than 30. The reason, according to the Norwegian philosopher and sociologist Jon Elster, is that it was believed that only citizens over 30 were able to have sufficient maturity to vote. At the same time, it was assumed that some youngsters of 25-30 years of age were already mature enough to accomplish duties in political office. Another example concerns the extension of the right to vote for women. In some cases, women could run for office before they were allowed to vote. Moreover, it was not expected that they represent all enfranchised citizens, since those were exclusively males. In Belgium for instance, women can vote in legislative elections since 1949, but they had already been eligible starting from 1920 for the Chamber of Deputies and 1921 for the Senate.

Complexity further increases if we ask the question if, and under what conditions, foreign citizens should have the right to vote and/or the right to run for political office. This speaks to the issue of what rights dual citizens should be entitled to.

Foreign citizens can vote at the municipal level in most French-speaking cantons of Western Switzerland and also in some municipalities of Appenzell Outer Rhodes and the Grisons. In two instances, Jura and Neuchâtel, foreign citizens can also vote at the cantonal level but are not entitled to run for cantonal office. In other cases, the right to be elected is limited only to legislative elections, for example in the canton of Jura. In 2014, the citizens of Jura have accepted to grant foreign citizens the right to run for office also in elections to municipal executives, with the exception of the office of mayor, which is still reserved for Swiss citizens only.

On the other hand, the case of Ignazio Cassis, already discussed in the previous post on the NCCR blog, has brought to light the question of the political rights of dual citizens. Currently, every Swiss national is considered a citizen with full rights, regardless of her or him having other nationalities. But some people argue that exclusive Swiss citizenship must be a necessary condition to access the Federal Council and the Federal Parliament. This is the content, for example, of a parliamentary motion presented on September 25, 2017, by Lorenzo Quadri, a national councillor of the Lega dei Ticinesi. Others, like the political theorist Rainer Bauböck, maintain that politicians with dual citizens should be able to be elected in their country of residence as long as during their mandate they do not exercise the political rights in the country of origin.


Original version: Italian. Translation: Lorenzo Piccoli, with the author.

First published at nccre-on-the-move blog.


Further bibliographical suggestions:

Jon Elster, Securities Against Misrule. Juries, Assemblies, Elections. Cambridge University Press, 2013. (In particular the section: “Voters and Eligibles”, pp. 238-244).

Nenad Stojanović, “Discrimination and politics”, in K. Lippert-Rasmussen (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of the Ethics of Discrimination. Routledge, 2018, pp. 348–59.