Switzerland – Voting rights: ‘The foreign community is too big to be ignored’

One of the most restrictive approaches:

One in three Swiss residents is not allowed to take part in national elections and votes. In most cases that’s because they don’t have Swiss citizenship. How does it feel to live in the country that holds the most referendums in the world without being able to vote?

 “I’ve lived in several countries, but my experience in Switzerland is the first time I’ve been directly confronted with a situation where other inhabitants make decisions about my life and my welfare,” says Estefania Cuero, who has an Ecuadorian and a German passport and has lived in Switzerland for four years. “This is very new to me – and sometimes, very unpleasant.”Cuero, a diversity consultant and doctoral candidate at the University of Lucerne, says specific issues are behind that feeling. “The vote on the burqa ban [passed in March by 51.2% of voters] really affected me. I felt unwelcome – even though I don’t wear a niqab and I’m not Muslim. But for me the message behind it was: ‘We don’t want to see anyone here who looks foreign’.

The purpose of direct democracy is to involve the population in political decision-making. But regular referendums and people’s initiatives repeatedly reveal who does not belong to the electorate.

Of Switzerland’s resident population of about 8.7 million, around 35% are not allowed to vote at a national level.

“You often hear ‘Switzerland has voted’ or ‘Switzerland has decided’,” Cuero says. “But if 35% aren’t allowed to vote, then a statement like that is problematic, maybe even wrong. It’s not Switzerland but very specific individuals or a group that can decide for others and therefore exercises power over other groups that belong to Switzerland.”

The biggest group of people excluded from decisions on national issues is foreigners. Switzerland takes the same approach as almost all other countries on this. Only four countries in the world allow non-citizens to vote at a national level: Chile, Uruguay, New Zealand and Malawi. But in Switzerland the question of participation for foreign residents is more pressing than in other countries because the proportion of foreigners is high: roughly a quarter of permanent residents are not Swiss.

This can lead to strange situations. At the 2019 federal elections the municipality of Spreitenbach in northern Switzerland was home to as many adult foreigners as people with voting rights. The electorate accounted for only 39% of the population. What’s more, the turnout in Spreitenbach was very low, so only 10% of all residents took part in the elections.

For a very long time another huge segment of society was excluded from democratic representation: women. “The share of foreign residents has reached dimensions that can no longer be ignored,” says Sanija Ameti, co-president of the pro-European Operation Libero movement.

Ameti was three when her parents fled from Bosnia to Switzerland. When she was young, a number of people’s initiatives, usually launched by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, concerned migration policy and often stirred up sentiment against the Balkan diaspora.

“My parents and I had no voice in these votes even though we were directly affected by them. It was extremely frustrating, because we had no choice but to put up with the xenophobic and anti-Muslim politics,” Ameti says, adding that this was one of the reasons she entered politics.

“The mass immigration initiative politicised me,” says Hendrik Jansen, who was born, raised and educated in Switzerland. Today he works in public administration and can’t voice his opinion in public, so we have changed his name.

In 2014 Swiss voters narrowly approved a proposal to curb immigration, imposing limits on the number of foreigners allowed into the country.

Jansen emphasises that as a Dutchman he has an easier time than other migrants. “People rarely have issues with northern Europeans,” he says. “When I say where I come from, the response is often: ‘You’re one of the good ones!’ But the law doesn’t care about that: a tighter law on deportation, for example, affects everyone without a passport equally.

Voting rights as a means of integration?

Jansen, who is active in clubs and does voluntary work, could vote if he adopted Swiss citizenship. So why doesn’t he? “On the municipal level, at the very least, citizenship shouldn’t be a prerequisite,” he says. “If I’m engaged in society, I should be able to vote.”

He thus addresses one of the key arguments put forward by advocates for foreigners’ voting rights: residents without a Swiss passport take part in community life and pay taxes in Switzerland – why shouldn’t they be able to vote on what happens with that money?

They are directly affected by Swiss laws, so why should one section of the population be denied a say in rules it must obey? At the same time, Switzerland guarantees the right to vote to one group of people who neither pay taxes in Switzerland nor are directly affected by most of the laws: Swiss expatriates.

Even if Jansen wanted to become Swiss, it would take a while. He recently moved – only a few kilometres away, but into a new municipality. That means any application for citizenship would have to wait several years.

Ameti, on the other hand, did gain Swiss citizenship and is an active politician in the Liberal Green Party. “I was lucky to be able to apply for citizenship in the city of Zurich,” she says. “The citizenship process is not as fair everywhere – in some municipalities people are subjected to real harassment.”

Ameti thinks the idea of integration via political participation should be revived. The example of Jens Weber shows that this can work.

Weber lives in the northeastern municipality of Trogen, one of the few villages in German-speaking Switzerland that recognises foreigners’ right to vote (see box). As an American, he was elected to the local council in 2006. “It was one of the best days of my life, when I went to Trogen in 2006 and could say ‘right, now I can join in!’” he said in an SWI swissinfo.ch panel discussion. “This experience had a major impact on me and convinced me that I wanted to become a Swiss citizen,” he says.

Diversity taken for granted

However, a possible reform of the voting or naturalisation laws is not the only decisive factor in the fair treatment of the many Swiss residents without citizenship.

“What’s needed is an honest discussion about what and who Switzerland is,” Cuero says. “We need Switzerland’s self-image to mirror the diversity of this society.”

“Anyone who insists there is a single defining Swiss culture should explain the Rösti ditch to me,” says Jansen, referring to the linguistic divide between the French- and German-speaking parts of the country. “The Swiss are not all the same. There are differences between them that are not necessarily smaller than the differences between a Swiss person and a foreigner.”

Source: Voting rights: ‘The foreign community is too big to be ignored’

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: There Is No Good Reason You Should Have to Be a Citizen to Vote

A rather controversial and unrealistic proposal, one that expands on arguments used in the case of municipal voting rights. As always, I prefer to address citizenship requirements and processes rather than expanding one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship to non-citizens:

Washingtonians love to complain about taxation without representation. But for me and my fellow noncitizens, it is a fact of political life that we submit to unquestioningly year after year, primary after primary, presidential election after presidential election. Nearly 15 million people living legally in the United States, most of whom contribute as much as any natural-born American to this country’s civic, cultural and economic life, don’t have a say in matters of politics and policy because we — resident foreign nationals, or “aliens” as we are sometimes called — cannot vote.

Considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision undermining voting rights, and Republicans’ efforts to suppress, redistrict and manipulate their way to electoral security, it’s time for Democrats to radically expand the electorate. Proposing federal legislation to give millions of young people and essential workers a clear road to citizenship is a good start. But there’s another measure that lawmakers both in Washington and state capitals should put in place: lifting voting restrictions on legal residents who aren’t citizens — people with green cards, people here on work visas, and those who arrived in the country as children and are still waiting for permanent papers.

Expanding the franchise in this way would give American democracy new life, restore immigrants’ trust in government and send a powerful message of inclusion to the rest of the world.

It’s easy to assume that restricting the franchise to citizens is an age-old, nonnegotiable fact. But it’s actually a relatively recent convention and a political choice. Early in the United States’ history, voting was a function not of national citizenship but of gender, race and class. As a result, white male landowners of all nationalities were encouraged to play an active role in shaping American democracy, while women and poor, Indigenous and enslaved people could not. That wholesale discrimination is unquestionably worse than excluding resident foreigners from the polls, but the point is that history shows how readily voting laws can be altered — and that restrictive ones tend not to age well.

Another misconception is that citizen voting rights have always been the prerogative of the federal government. In fact, states have largely decided who had a say in local, state and national elections. Arkansas was the last state to eliminate noncitizen voting in 1926, and it wasn’t until 1996 that Congress doubled down with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made voting in federal elections while foreign — already not permitted because of state-level rules — a criminal, and deportable, offense. (This means that congressional Democrats working on immigration and election reform can reverse the 1996 sanctions the same way they voted them in.)

The strongest case for noncitizen voting today is representation: The more voters show up to the polls, the more accurately elections reflect peoples’ desires. The United States already has plenty of institutions that account for noncitizens: The census aims to reach all residents because it believes everyone, even aliens, matters. Corporations enjoy free speech and legal personhood — and they’re not even people. Would it be such a stretch to give a noncitizen resident a say in who gets elected to their state legislature, Congress or the White House?

What’s more, allowing noncitizens to vote in federal, state and municipal elections would help revitalize American democracy at a time when enthusiasm and trust are lacking. While 2020 was considered a “high turnout” election, only about 65 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Compare that to Germany, where turnout was 76 percent in the last general election.

Democrats are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of this change — at least at first. But it could have interesting ripple effects: Elected Republicans might be induced to appeal to a more diverse constituency, or perhaps to enthuse their constituents so deeply that they too start to vote in greater numbers.

It’s also just good civics: Allowing people to vote gives them even more of a sense of investment in their towns, cities, communities and country. There’s a detachment that comes with not being able to vote in the place where you live. Concerns about mixed loyalties, meanwhile, are misplaced. The United States not only allows dual citizenship but also allows dual citizens to vote — and from abroad. Is there any reason to think resident foreigners should be less represented?

Voting is, in a sense, a reward for becoming an American. But in truth, it’s often much harder to get a visa or green card than to then become a naturalized citizen. It took me 15 years and over $10,000 in legal fees (not to mention the cost of college) to obtain permanent residency. The citizenship test and oath feel comparatively like a piece of cake.

It shouldn’t be this onerous to emigrate. But given that it is, it would make much more sense to make residents provide proof of voter registration as a requirement for naturalization, rather than the other way around. We will have more than “earned” it. And what better way to learn about American life than to play an active role in deciding its elections?

In the absence of federal- or state-level action, local lawmakers are already free let noncitizens decide on things like garbage pickup, parking rules and potholes. Some do. Since 1992, Takoma Park, Md., has allowed all residents to vote, regardless of their citizenship. Nine additional Maryland towns, as well as districts in Vermont and Massachusetts, have voted to re-enfranchise noncitizens. The cities of Chicago, Washington and Portland are also considering the idea, and a bill that would give New York City’s authorized immigrants voting rights has a new supermajority in the City Council.

I’ve lived in New York since 2004, but haven’t once had a chance to cast a ballot here. Last fall, I grew so frustrated that I started mailing ballots to my hometown in Switzerland. But voting in a place I haven’t lived in since I was a minor makes about as little sense as not voting in the city where I’ve lived my entire adult life.

I’m looking forward to City Council giving me, and the other million or so friendly aliens living here, the right to vote for New York’s officials. But we should be able to vote for our representatives in Washington, too. I hope that Democrats seize their chance, and realize the power and the enthusiasm of their potential constituents. They — and we — will not regret it.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/opinion/noncitizen-voting-us-elections.html

Montreal latest Canadian city to consider granting voting rights to non-citizens

Unlikely to happen given provincial decision. Relatively few studies regarding the experience of jurisdictions that have granted voting rights, with Leslie Seidle’s review of the Netherlands, Sweden and Belgium showing mixed results: “Finally, those who advocate local voting rights for non-nationals should be modest in their claims. Although the expanded franchise can have symbolic as well as practical value, more equitable elected representation of immigrant-background communities requires explicit efforts on the part of political leaders and party organizations, as well as the commitment of the broader society.“:

Montreal officials are looking into extending voting rights to more than 100,000 non-citizens in order to better integrate immigrants and encourage more racialized people to participate in municipal politics.

The idea isn’t new: for years, Canadian cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Saint John, N.B., have debated or proposed giving the vote to permanent residents — but none have succeeded in convincing provincial or federal governments to modify citizenship and voting laws.

Montreal can “show leadership” on this issue and rekindle the debate in the country, according to an April 19 report by the city’s committee on social development and diversity.

“Granting voting rights to permanent residents is one of the ways to foster political participation and ensure better representation of the various groups that form society,” the report said.

“Montreal, the city that welcomes the largest number of immigrants to Quebec each year, should ensure it reflects the diversity of its population.”

The committee, composed mostly of elected officials from the two main parties at city hall, wants Montreal to publicly affirm its desire to grant voting rights to permanent residents who have lived “for at least 12 months on the territory of the city of Montreal.” It also wants the city to lobby the provincial and federal governments to change laws to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections.

The idea has its critics. Frederic Bastien, history teacher at Montreal’s Dawson College and former leadership candidate for the Parti Quebecois, says allowing non-citizens to vote could endanger the foundations of the nation state.

He says citizenship comes with an understanding of the culture, language and history of a country, adding that the idea could be a political strategy by Mayor Valerie Plante ahead of next November’s municipal election.

“It is part of a series of gestures from the Plante administration,” Bastien said in a recent interview. “It’s a ‘woke’ trend among Projet Montreal and it’s a toxic vision of social and public life,” he added, referring to Plante’s political party.

Chris Erl, doctoral candidate in McGill University’s geography department who researches municipal politics, disagrees that granting voting rights to marginalized communities would undermine the country’s democratic values. Rather, he said, doing so would provide a voice for many people who have been excluded from politics.

“Where all the political parties have failed in the past is in recruiting candidates from communities of colour,” Erl said. “Something like this could certainly help inspire people that may feel isolated from the political system to get involved.”

He said he questions the fairness of refusing to allow people who are actively engaged in the urban life of a city the right to select those who represent them in office.

“People need to look at this from the very basic idea that their neighbours, who might not have citizenship, are paying the same property taxes, they use the same services and they have the same ideas and opinions about how the city could be better run, so why shouldn’t they be able to send people to city hall to make decisions?” Erl said.

The city’s diversity committee noted that permanent residents compose about 9 per cent of Montreal’s population, equalling about 170,000 people — roughly 105,000 of whom would qualify as voters.

Montreal’s city administration says it’s interested in letting non-citizens vote in order to attract more people to the political process — especially immigrants. Voter turnout in the 2017 municipal election was 22 per cent in Cote-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grace, the most ethnically diverse borough in the city, according to government data.

But it’s unclear what the Quebec and federal governments think of Montreal’s idea. A spokesperson for Quebec’s municipal affairs minister didn’t return a request for comment. And Corinne Havard, spokesperson for federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, said Ottawa doesn’t play a role in municipal elections and directed questions about reforming voting laws to the Quebec government.

Montreal doesn’t seem interested in pushing the issue at the moment — at least not ahead of November’s city election.

Genevieve Jutras, spokeswoman for Plante, said the city will take its time to examine the report, adding that it is up to the provincial government to modify voting rights.

“The administration doesn’t have the intention to request a modification before the next municipal election,” Jutras said.

Source: Montreal latest Canadian city to consider granting voting rights to non-citizens

‘Kiss of death’: Advocates warn Democrats’ voting bill could harm immigrants

Interesting possible collateral impact:

Some immigration lawyers and progressives warn that a provision in Democrats’ sweeping voting-rights legislation risks inadvertently harming immigrants if it becomes law.

Their concerns reflect a debate among progressives about whether to amend the bill, and they have created tension between two of the party’s priorities — maximizing access to the ballot box and supporting immigration — as the Democratic-controlled Senate returns from recess this week and debates it.

Democrats who wrote the House-passed For the People Act want to require states to automatically register people to vote at times like when they apply for driver’s licenses or state identification — unless they opt out.

Some immigration lawyers are sounding an alarm, arguing that the measure could mistakenly register people who are legally in the country on work visas or green cards. That could subject them to grave consequences, like being deported or permanently banned from gaining citizenship.

Noncitizens wouldn’t have to intend to register, and they could be punished even if they never tried to vote. They could check the wrong box on a form or misunderstand a DMV clerk’s question about their legal status and face serious consequences.

“A false claim to U.S. citizenship is what we call the kiss of death. It is a permanent black mark that prevents a noncitizen from ever gaining status,” said Gloria Contreras Edin, an immigration lawyer based in Minnesota. “With the HR1 automatic voter registration system, the risk is there’s a strong possibility that there will be unintentional violation of that immigration law.”

Federal law is strict: It is a crime for a noncitizen to falsely claim citizenship in pursuit of benefits such as registering to vote. There are serious consequences even for honest mistakes. A person who does vote could go to jail.

“Ignorance isn’t necessarily a defense,” Contreras Edin said. “The proposed plan is likely to harm noncitizens. It could permanently bar lawful permanent residents who have been here for 20 or 30 years, working and paying taxes, who have their whole lives here.”

As the Senate reviews the legislation, immigration lawyers like Contreras Edin, as well as some election law experts and progressive strategists, are urging Democrats in private memos and conversations to make changes. They want to modify the “front end” automatic registration to a “back end” system that requires factoring in citizenship documentation before triggering registration.

The progressive community, which overwhelmingly agrees on the need for automatic voter registration, is debating how best to structure the measure to maximize effectiveness, reduce harm to immigrants and defend against political vulnerabilities.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which claims credit for helping develop the bill, said it takes protecting vulnerable communities “very seriously” and argued that the legislation would shield noncitizens because it would apply only to applicants who are “affirming United States citizenship.”

“It doesn’t get down to the details of when and how agencies filter ineligible people out of the system, in part because when and how that happens depends on the agency and the information they are presented,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, a deputy director of the Brennan Center. “It is not the case that the For the People Act delineates the details of how that happens.”

Morales-Doyle said that more than a dozen states have adopted front-end automatic registration systems and that he’s not aware of any instances when a noncitizen was added to the rolls.

The automatic voter registration language is backed by the Latino advocacy group NALEO and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, among others, according to a March 24 letter.

‘Underestimating the political vulnerability’

The disagreement boils down to how strong the citizenship verification ought to be. And that creates tension: The stricter it is, the more hurdles it creates to register people, but the more it defers to agencies, the more room there is for error.

Some progressives argue that if Democrats enact a law that registers ineligible people, they risk fueling Republican criticism that they don’t care about secure elections.

Source: ‘Kiss of death’: Advocates warn Democrats’ voting bill could harm immigrants

A fast-food lesson: Voting should be by residency, not citizenship

I disagree. With citizenship relatively easy and quick to get in Canada (under 5 years), no reason to provide municipal voting rights as most other countries with municipal voting rights have longer citizenship eligibility periods (and arguably use this to reduce pressure for a more facilitative citizenship acquisition process).

A fast-food lesson: Voting should be by residency, not citizenship – The Globe and Mail.