Is expanding access to the vote always the most democratic thing to do?
Patti Tamara Lenard, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa
Questions about who should have access to political participation rights, and in what jurisdiction or jurisdictions, have always been complicated, and ever more so in an increasingly inter-connected world. Luicy Pedroza’s brilliant Citizenship Beyond Nationality is an evaluation of recent political changes that many states have made, or considered, in the direction of extending the right to vote to non-citizen residents (whom she calls denizens, and I will follow her lead). Pedroza’s analysis – “an empirically-grounded middle-range account that helps to understand the specificity and diversity of enfranchisement” (Pedroza 2019, 42) – aims to show that multiple factors explain why non-citizen voting attains salience in particular jurisdictions, as well as whether such proposals find widespread acceptance and pass into law. She is speaking to a wide range of scholars, including political scientists who are keen to develop macro-level theories that explain the adoption or rejection of policies like non-resident voting, and political theorists like myself who consider whether such policies are morally defensible and, perhaps even, morally required. The book is not a guideline for advocates of denizen voting, but it is certainly a book written by a sympathetic author, whose analysis emphasizes the benefits gained by expanding the vote to denizens and downplays the reasons to be sceptical of such moves.
In the field of political theory of non-resident voting, the core of most arguments in its favour is democratic, though they take a range of forms, focussing on the right of individuals to be politically self-determining, free from coercion, and entitled to participate in the selection of laws and policies that impact them (Lenard 2014; Song 2009). These democratic, political theoretic concerns also drive Pedroza’s inquiry. The early portion of the book notices the democratic impulse that has driven expansions of the vote historically, explaining that multiple forces have pressed in favour of political inclusion of all citizens. Extending the franchise to non-citizen residents follows this trajectory towards more and greater inclusion; Pedroza writes of denizen enfranchisement that it represents “some of the best liberal and republican components of citizenship” (Pedroza, 2019, 197), and that “extending the franchise to non-citizen residents is justified by liberal and democratic concerns” (200). In this context, I raise two critical observations in the discussion that follows: 1) Is democracy really served by all forms of denizen enfranchisement? And 2) Does the expansion of the (local vote) to denizens really force a reckoning with traditional conceptions of citizenship and nationality? I believe that Pedroza answers yes to both of these questions, but I will express scepticism below.
As I suggested in the introduction, Pedroza is excited by the slow but steady changes she witnesses across democratic states, towards expanding denizen voting. The reasons that states move haltingly towards granting the right to vote to denizens are varied – that is what her careful analysis demonstrates – but for Pedroza, we should celebrate the small moves towards it, since even these manifest more and better instantiation of democratic principles of equal access to political participation. As with many political theorists writing in this space, Pedroza is not convinced – this she says only implicitly – by rejoinders that there are many political opportunities available to non-citizens who do not (yet) possess the right to vote, thus obviating the urgency of extending the right to vote to denizens. They may lobby for candidates; they may write letters and attend meetings to make their views known; they may raise money for candidates; they may form organizations to lobby for specific policy positions and so on. The right to vote is central to the democratic experience, and so democracies, increasingly home to non-resident citizens, should strive towards expanding the right to vote to them as a way of remedying a “democratic deficit” that they increasingly face (Pedroza 2019, 18).
But in the course of this discussion, a key point is elided: the right to vote that is under discussion in Pedroza’s book is the right to vote in municipal elections. As she observes, a precious few (five are named) states permit non-citizens to vote in national-level elections. Most democratic states are divided into localities or municipalities that are in part self-governing in some policy spaces. Local jurisdictions may have policy control over key issues including, just to take my own locality as an example, school boards, vaccinations, garbage collection, distribution of water and sewer services, regulation of community centres, and so on. These are unambiguously areas that impact the lived experience of residents of a neighbourhood in tangible ways, on a daily basis. Moreover, their impact on this lived experience often informs the demands that residents be permitted to vote in local elections: since people have the right to influence the conditions that shape their lives, and since local policy choices impact so significantly the conditions that shape the lives of all residents of a jurisdiction, whether citizens or not, all residents should possess the legal right to have not simply a say (for example by attending meetings), but also a vote, in the policy choices that are made. On its face, this is a plausible argument.
To the extent that it is successful, however, it is in fact successful because the stakes are so low: already, participation in municipal politics is low, and the decisions available to be made are relatively minor ones. If I am right about this, then it is worth dwelling on what is gained by extending the right of denizens to vote in municipal elections, especially with respect to the contribution such expansion makes to meeting the imperatives of democratic principle. One might simply say here, as does Rainer Bauböck, that the principles of inclusion at the national level and local level are distinct, perhaps birthright and residence respectively (Bauböck 2003), and correspondingly that they should simply be considered independently of each other. But, I think this response does not work in Pedroza’s case, since her claim is ultimately that the local vote presses us to reconsider how we think about national bounded citizenship and nationality. I will return to this claim below, but for now I think it is worth considering that this kind of argument fails to take seriously what it means to say that policy choices have significant impact on the lives of individuals, especially those who are non-citizens.
As garbage collection strikes vividly illustrate, the question of who collects garbage, and when, is deeply important to the day-to-day lives of all residents of a jurisdiction. But this daily impact, in my view, pails mightily in comparison to the impact of immigration policy choices, including especially the rules for naturalization and family reunification, on the lives of non-citizen residents. In spite of some recent proposals that local jurisdictions should have more say in, at least, the enforcement of immigration policy (as manifest for example in discussions of ‘sanctuary cities’, in which local authorities render it difficult or impossible for immigration enforcement actors to do their work), immigration policy choices remain the purview of those who are already citizens of a state (de Shalit 2018). In other words, the argument that the right to vote in local elections gives residents essential control over the things that matter to them is, at least in part, exaggerated.
To get around the exaggeration, this argument for denizen enfranchisement is often coupled with an additional defense for granting the right to vote in municipal elections, namely, that it is good training for citizenship. On this view, the reason to defend denizen voting is that it gives permanent residents on track to gain citizenship a kind of education to citizenship, i.e., an opportunity to practice democratic participation. But notice about this argument that it points to John Stuart Mill’s briefly defended “weighted voting” scheme, according to which those who were unpracticed or uneducated in politics could have an opportunity to practice politics, without influencing the direction of things too significantly (their votes would be weighted less than those of others who knew better). This argument, however, is riddled with a kind of unjustified paternalism, suggesting that newcomers are somehow challenged by democratic practice, and that the grounds of their local inclusion is the need or desire to encourage participation on a small scale before they can handle the responsibility of a national-level vote. This argument additionally presumes the priority of enfranchising those who are on the path to citizenship, rather than those who may be most in need of a political voice, including admitted refugees (who may be on temporary visas) and temporary foreign labour migrants (Ziegler 2017; Lenard 2015).
Pedroza’s response to such hesitations is, broadly, to argue that any expansion of the vote is to be celebrated. These are all, she says, stepping stones towards the inclusion that democracy in a globalized world requires. It is in this context that she defends the choices made in Portugal, where the right to vote in local elections has been granted on the basis of the principle of reciprocity, i.e., citizens of countries that grant their Portuguese citizen-residents the right to vote in local elections may vote in local Portuguese elections. The result is that EU citizens may vote in Portuguese local elections, as per EU law, as can citizens of countries like Norway and Iceland that grant voting rights to all denizens. In the Portuguese case, however, the political impetus for extending local voting rights, on a reciprocal basis, beyond EU denizens was at least in part to specially include Lusophone denizens – that is, citizens with linguistic and cultural ties to Portugal – on the grounds that it was in the interest of Portugal to extend and strengthen these connections. Pedroza notices that, at least in the last several decades, voting rights are expanded but not retracted, so even were one to worry that the choice to extend the right to vote to denizens with cultural ties only represents a kind of discrimination based on cultural or ethnic connections, she sees progress in the right direction. Once a state extends the right to vote (locally) to some individuals, and no adverse consequences are witnessed, the chance that further extensions are granted is high.
Maybe so. But it is at least worth noting that this kind of expansion, towards granting rights to denizens with shared cultural attributes, might be morally and practically problematic, especially from a democratic perspective. It is morally problematic for the way it is sacrifices one democratic principle – the principle that people are equal, in spite of cultural, religious and ethnic differences and correspondingly entitled to an equal package of rights – for another – the principle of inclusion, even if only at the local election and thus not a significant inclusion, and even if only some are included. On the contrary, one might say – and indeed I believe one should – that partial inclusion is worse than no inclusion. The partial inclusion for which Portugal opts, which in significant part is an inclusion that distinguishes Lusophone denizens from “others” (for example, Moroccan residents of Portugal), creates classes of non-citizens (in fact, Portugal constructs four distinct categories of denizens), some of whom are preferred for sharing cultural and ethnic traits that are inaccessible to others. It is not clear that this is a victory for democracy, even if one is hopeful, as Pedroza is, that such expansions make future expansions likely (as she says, it did in the Nordic countries, for e.g., 87) She writes, debates about the value of denizen enfranchisement “tend to be resilient and move on. Their force can still be stopped or reversed but not without compromising democratic institutions” (Pedroza 2019, 207).
Correspondingly, for Pedroza, a central and major theoretical claim is that the expansion of denizen voting is a manifestation of significant challenges to traditional conceptions of citizenship and nationality. The enfranchisement of denizens, she says, represent “redefinitions of the electorate” in ways that change “something fundamental at the core of our understanding of citizenship” (Pedroza 2019, 18). Denizen enfranchisement, she says, can be part of a strategy to give access to “all subsystems of society…on an equal basis with citizens” (203). To make this case, Pedroza draws extensively on a case study of attempts, in Germany, to enfranchise denizens – an attempt which was successful to the extent that some Länder adopted policies that would enfranchise them, but which was ultimately struck down by the German Constitutional Court as unconstitutional. One reason why it may have been unsuccessful, she proposes, is that the deliberations around its possible adoption were inextricably linked with accounts of the meaning and accessibility of German nationality. As she presents those who opposed denizen enfranchisement, it was on the grounds that such enfranchisement required too radical a rethinking of the notion of German nationality, for which many Germans were not prepared.
Above, I expressed scepticism of the claim that the right to vote in local elections contributes much to the ability of individuals to be self-governing in the right kind of way. So, it will be of no surprise that I am likewise sceptical that the expansion of denizen voting extends much pressure on traditional conceptions of citizenship or nationality. On the contrary, in the Portuguese case, it reinforces these traditional conceptions of citizenship as founded on immutable characteristics, a conception of citizenship which, in fact, democratic principles warn us against. Moreover, even if one agrees, with Pedroza, that once the right to vote locally – even to a subset of denizens – is granted, it is rarely rescinded and thus represents a democratic gain of sorts, the manifest unwillingness to consider granting denizens the right to vote nationally is evidence that traditional conceptions of citizenship and nationality remain robust.
Pedroza’s book is a genuine compendium of the right of denizens to vote. I have put my questions and disagreements forcefully because Pedroza’s impeccable scholarship, manifest in a book that is a real joy to read, demands it. She has offered persuasive evidence that we should read even “failures” to adopt the local vote for denizens as progress towards more and better instantiation of democratic objections in a transnational, globalizing world (Pedroza 2019, 146 and 148, with respect to the German case). With this book, Pedroza establishes herself as a world-expert on denizen voting. It is therefore especially important to consider whether and when she has read the trends correctly and whether the thread of optimism that binds the book is warranted. I have offered some reasons, above, to suggest that it is worth interpreting these threads more sceptically. To summarize: it is not clear that the right to vote in local elections, especially when granted partially to denizens who share ethnic and cultural markers with the majority population, is a victory for democratic theory, nor is it clear that denizen voting, in local elections, forces us to reconsider traditional conceptions of citizenship and nationality.
Bauböck, Rainer. 2003. “Reinventing Urban Citizenship.” Citizenship Studies. 7 (2): 139-160.
Lenard, Patti Tamara. 2015. “Unlike Canadian Expats Living Abroad, Non-Citizen Residents Are Directly Impacted by Our Laws, yet Have No Say in Them.” National Post, July 31, 2015: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/patti-tamara-lenard-unlike-canadian-expats-living-abroad-non-citizen-residents-are-directly-impacted-by-our-laws-yet-have-no-say-in-them
— 2014. “Residence and the Right to Vote.” Journal of International Migration and Integration, April, 1–14.
Pedroza, Luicy. 2019. Citizenship Beyond Nationality: Immigrants’ Right to Vote Across the World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Shalit, Avner de. 2018. Cities and Immigration: Political and Moral Dilemmas in the New Era of Migration. Oxford University Press.
Song, Sarah. 2009. “Democracy and Noncitizen Voting Rights.” Citizenship Studies 13 (6): 607–20.
Ziegler, Ruvi. 2017. Voting Rights of Refugees. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.