The Curious Case of Denizen Voting Rights in the Age of Migration
Although mass migration is not new, the diversity of migrant origin and destination has changed, and the intensity of national and local responses to immigrants has taken a decidedly dark turn. A resurgent nationalism has led many countries to restrict immigration and delay granting formal recognition and access to rights and benefits. Even liberal regimes generally hold the view that only certain immigrants who meet specified rules and regulations can become legitimate members of a political community (i.e. naturalize and become citizens). Hence, most countries deny or delay migrants’ access to services and rights, including voting rights. Such logics tend to hold that voting rights should be an exclusive benefit of citizenship. Accordingly, the vast majority of the approximately 200 countries worldwide limit access to voting rights to citizens.
Moving in the opposite direction, nevertheless, a growing number of countries have embraced extending access to various rights and benefits to refugees and migrants, including voting rights. EU countries have extended local voting rights to residents who possess citizenship in other EU member states. Several countries – Ireland, Australia, parts of Latin America, and select municipalities in the USA – also provide voting rights to third country nationals. Some of these regimes grant voting rights only to documented immigrants (“regular migrants”) or limit participation to local elections while others allow all residents voting rights, regardless of immigration status. Across these approaches residency rather than citizenship is the threshold making people legitimate stakeholders and eligible voters (Ferris et al., 2019).
What accounts for these variations among these countries, despite their sharing similar conditions and facing similar challenges? Luicy Pedroza asks this curious question and ably answers it. In so doing, Pedroza gives us the most comprehensive and rigorous analysis of noncitizen voting rights to date.
Pedroza delineates long-term resident migrants as a subgroup within all noncitizen immigrants, which, following Tomas Hammar (1990) she names as “denizens,” who are residing legally in the host society and are longer-term residents. Pedroza argues that because “denizens already enjoy rights previously given only to citizens, the presence of denizens poses a stronger particular challenge to the boundaries of membership (2019, p. 2-3.” This goes to the heart of the issue, which Pedroza frames squarely: “How much exclusion can liberal democracies tolerate within their territorial boundaries without losing congruence with their principles?” (ibid). Denizen voting (DV), Pedroza contends, is the answer.
Pedroza’s treatment of the subject details all the countries where DV has been explored and enacted, and the book provides other useful charts and tables for scholars and policy makers. More significantly, Pedroza develops a useful “mid-range” theoretical framework to help us understand why DV occurs and how to make sense of it. Overall, Pedroza provides a thoroughgoing examination of (1) where DV exists in polities across the globe, (2) how DV is discussed, (3) why some DV reforms succeed and others fail, (4) why DV reforms vary, (5) how DV debates reflect and affect citizenship in regimes, and (6) why it matters. In these ways, this book is a must read for those interested in citizenship, voting rights, and democracy.
So, why does DV happen or not? Pedroza begins by pointing to two bodies of political sociology intricately associated with such explanations. One thread in the literature sees denizen enfranchisement as an example of emerging post-national trends. In this view, human and individual rights are separated from those of the nation-state and are seen as rights based on personhood, where international and transnational norm diffusion occurs in discourses or via a slow-paced but growing agreement in international law or via a “bottom-up” convergence. Thus, this literature sees DV essentially as an outgrowth of post-nationalism.
Another body of literature uses a historical institutionalist approach that explains the adoption or non-adoption of denizen enfranchisement – as well as other immigration and immigrant policies – as a result of citizenship traditions and politics within regimes. Pedroza joins this strand of literature focusing on the politics of citizenship by exploring and comparing denizen enfranchisement processes via an examination of political debates. This literature argues that citizenship issues and denizen voting are ultimately a matter of particular political dynamics. Pedroza makes this argument convincingly by adopting a comparative lens and by tracing “political discourses” put forward during the different processes of denizen enfranchisement in regimes she examines in order to understand them, paying particular attention to their contexts.
In so doing, Pedroza uses a “process account” to study mechanisms at the heart of enfranchisement debates, which also identifies three assumptions rooted in social constructivism and political pluralism. First, the outcomes of denizen enfranchisement reform depend on who the actors are that propose denizen enfranchisement and how they frame it. Second, another factor affecting the outcome of DV debates is the sensitivity of politicians to changes in election rules. That is, the assessment by elected officials regarding how enfranchising new voters might affect their political careers helps explain their support or opposition to DV. (My own work hues along the lines of this approach.) Third, Pedroza contends that “institutional context” affects frames of debates and outcomes.
Pedroza constructs a data set from the 50 cases that have formally discussed whether to extend voting rights to denizens during the past 50 years, from municipalities to national governments. Importantly, Pedroza examines cases in Latin America, Asia and Africa, cases that have been largely neglected in the literature. Ultimately, Pedroza focuses on two cases – Portugal and Germany – a positive and negative case respectively to illustrate the value of this comparative process approach.
Pedroza’s process model deserves particular praise. It allows examination and evaluation of how it is that DV proposals come to be, how they are introduced, debated, decided, or reintroduced, and what their impacts are for politics and citizenship. Moreover, the in-depth case studies of Germany and Portugal yield important insights about other unexplained DV cases, because the protracted denizen enfranchisement processes and reforms evident in Portugal and Germany are largely based on reciprocity and cultural affinity, factors that loom large in understanding outcomes elsewhere. Pedroza concludes that “the results ultimately depend on how that problem is construed (p. 10).”
The successful denizen enfranchisement in Portugal, which is based on reciprocal relationships (noncitizens who spoke Portuguese already before admission and come from countries that have a colonial relation), helps us understand how these denizens were portrayed (construed) as essentially worthy stakeholders who would not disrupt the national identity in Portugal. We learn that DV in Portugal was rather limited and symbolic, rather than more substantive, because it ended up confirming and not challenging national citizenship and voting rights arrangements in Portugal. In short, DV did not pose a threat to the citizenship regime, politicians, or the Portuguese.
The German case is different. Yet Pedroza is quick to point out that Germany is not the prototype of a rigid, conservative, ethno-nationalist understanding of citizenship. That’s not why DV has not been enacted in Germany. The story there is more complicated, but no less revealing. In Germany there were actually four enfranchisement processes, some of which actually culminated in successful legislative DV bills. Indeed, four months before Schleswig-Holstein could implement its enfranchisement reform, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled it nil. Yet, the German debates on denizen enfranchisement went on and, in Pedroza’s words, “already have accomplished something significant: Through a multifold process by which institutions and groups selected, adopted, and shaped justifications for and against the reform, providing new referents for citizenship that have become part of a wider political discourse (Pedroza 2019, p 11).” Thus, debates about DV, about inclusion and exclusion, have had significant impacts, which may yet affect the relationship between national citizenship and voting rights.
Analysis of these case studies helps Pedroza construct an empirically grounded middle-range account, which in turn, helps us all understand the specificity and diversity of enfranchisement. The study shows how different “normative perspectives” inform questions about if, how, when and where denizens can participate in their community, which in turn affects justifications by politicians who then either defend or reject DV.
Today, after decades of growth of democratic norms and the expansion of the franchise to previously excluded groups (women, minorities, youth), a presumptive electoral inclusion norm places the burden of justifying exclusion on the state. Pedroza connects this past to current debates about DV because they involve the particularly gnarly problem of bias. Immigrants are in danger of being marginalized, like previously excluded groups, in the absence of mechanisms to keep government responsive and accountable. This concern connects to a related factor: how accessible is naturalization for immigrants? Pedroza shows how questions about DV are intimately connected to naturalization logics, policies, and politics.
To grant DV or not to grant DV? Pedroza’s model shows there are multiple factors involved in shaping outcomes in the cases where this question is raised and debated. Although different institutional contexts prefigure each process, “what is decisive for the enfranchisement process is the breadth and depth of political arguments, the interplay of parties in the political system, and the stakes of incumbent governments in pushing forward the reform (Pedroza, 2019, p 12).” In contrast to grand theories that focus on showing continuities, ignoring changes, or offering partial snapshots of convergence ignoring diverging gaps, Pedroza’s approach allows us to grasp, stepwise, changes to normative systems in different contexts.
Debates about DV involve redefinitions of the boundaries of political membership; who is included or excluded from rights. If citizenship is true to both its liberal and republican aspirations, Pedroza contends, then the challenges of substantial immigration in democracies requires a normatively coherent policy that combines open, easy rules of naturalization with denizen enfranchisement.
Pedroza’s account of enfranchisement processes demonstrates empirically how incremental change in citizenship understandings occurs. In so doing, she shows how understandings of citizenship can change when immigrant populations increase in regimes precisely because principles of liberty and equality, if adhered to, can force such adjustments. This is why DV matters: the extended presence of immigrants raises normative and political dilemmas regarding the borders of formal inclusion and exclusion in polities.
Legal and long-term residents (denizens) are more easily considered by citizens of a country to have greater claims as stakeholders, which in turn, tends to factor into denizens more often being enfranchised than other migrants. Yet, one can make the case that “irregular migrants” are more vulnerable and need protection and political power most. Regardless of one’s position on this question, few places actually provide voting rights to undocumented or “irregular” migrants.
Similarly, some might question whether DV is an important or pressing issue for immigrants today. Pedroza engages this query along with other questions about how to achieve “justice” for migrants in the book. Pedroza rightly points to how “citizenship freezes global inequalities” and that ultimately, DV must be a “global justice concern” (2019, p. 194). I couldn’t agree more. My position (elaborated with Kathleen Coll, 2018), is that immigrants themselves need to be intimately involved in discussions about such reforms. A popular saying, which captures this logic nicely, goes: “not about us without us.” Since the vulnerabilities of migrants have increased, immigrants themselves need to be at the table where decisions are made about them, and they need to be influential in implementing such policies.
And yet, as Pedroza notes, DV has been most successfully adopted in regimes when such efforts “fly under the radar,” and by making DV reform campaigns “boring and bureaucratic.” How then can DV address a “global justice” project, which ostensibly would require broad support in regimes and across borders, if DV is most often a minor, modest reform affair? Such are the rich conundrums that Pedroza’s account of DV offers, which merit more research and assessment.
Pedroza’s book raises a plethora of vital issues concerning DV that have profound implications for students of democracy and migrant advocates. Citizenship Beyond Nationality is a beautifully written and rigorously researched book, one that should be required reading for anyone interested in the subject and related concerns.
 A useful distinction is sometimes made by analysts between “immigration policy” and “immigrant policy.” “Immigration policy” determines which immigrant groups are permitted to enter and in what numbers (Hammar, 1985). “Immigrant policies” refer to federal, state, and local laws regarding the integration or the treatment of immigrants after they have arrived. In the US, the federal government sets immigration policy while immigrant policy is comprised of various state and local provisions and programs, which are less consistent and coherent than federal policy. Both immigration and immigrant policy, nevertheless, flow from the features of the larger political economy.
Ferris, Dan, Ron Hayduk, Alyscia Richards, Emma Strauss Schubert, and Mary Acri. “Noncitizen Voting Rights in the Global Era: a Literature Review and Analysis.” Journal of International Migration and Integration (2019): 1-23.
Hammar, Tomas. Democracy and the nation state: Aliens, denizens, and citizens in a world of international migration. Gower Publishing Company, 1990.
Hammar, Tomas ed. European immigration policy: A comparative study. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Hayduk, Ron, and Kathleen Coll. “Urban citizenship: campaigns to restore immigrant voting rights in the US.” New Political Science 40, no. 2 (2018): 336-352.
Hayduk, Ron. Democracy for all: Restoring immigrant voting rights in the United States. Taylor & Francis, 2006.
Pedroza, Luicy. Citizenship Beyond Nationality: Immigrants’ Right to Vote Across the World. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.