No one-size-fits-all for foreign suffrage

How the rest of the world deals with aliens at the ballot box

Support has been surprisingly muted for the Hatoyama administration’s push toward suffrage for foreign permanent residents, even among the constituencies such a law would enfranchise. The debate is definitely a hot one, sparking a number of protests against the plan around Tokyo, with opposition logic ranging from the rational (“They should nationalize”) to xenophobic (“Foreigners who hate Japan will take over the country”).

Giving voting rights to noncitizens is of course a controversial move, with implications in terms of sovereignty, democracy, integration and discrimination. But it is an issue many countries have been dealing with for generations as they grappled with the legacy of colonization and mass migration. While still generally an exception to the rule, over 40 countries around the world give legal aliens the right to vote in some capacity, employing a wide range of systems to address equally varied concerns.

Laws range from the plain (any permanent residents having resided in Iceland continuously for at least five years may vote) to complex (in Switzerland, foreigners may not vote on the national level, but may vote, and even run for office, in some cantons and/or municipalities). A few countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia, have over the years taken away suffrage for foreign residents.

Within the European Union, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty dictates a policy of reciprocity regarding voting rights in elections at the local level. The signing of the treaty paved the way for a number of EU countries to expand that right to all foreign residents, albeit to varying levels.

In Belgium, for example, all legal aliens with residency of five years or more were given the right to participate in municipal elections in 2004, providing they pledge allegiance to the Belgian Constitution and sign the European Convention on Human Rights. While voting in Belgium is mandatory, however, foreigners that do not wish to vote can take advantage of a loophole that exempts noncitizens.

Other EU countries ushered in foreign suffrage before the Maastricht Treaty was laid down. Members of the Nordic Passport Union extended voting rights to all, with certain conditions, before signing the treaty: Sweden in 1975, Denmark in 1981, Norway in 1983, Finland in 1991.

The Commonwealth of Nations, made up mainly of former British colonies, is slightly more complex, with suffrage for U.K. citizens in Commonwealth countries not mandatory but often practiced. Many smaller island nations give Commonwealth citizens the right to vote, but not be elected, on some level providing they meet certain residency requirements. South Africa allows only citizens to vote.

The U.K., as a member of both the Commonwealth and EU, allows local-level votes from residents who are EU citizens, and both local and parliamentary-level votes from residents from the Commonwealth and Ireland. Ireland reciprocates, allowing British residents a vote at Dail and local elections, while EU and non-EU residents are restricted to local-level polls. Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1949.

Although a member of the Commonwealth, Canada actually denied British who do not take Canadian citizenship the right to vote on the federal level through a law amended in 1970, and most provinces have followed suit since then, taking away suffrage from the British on every level. According to John Enright, spokesman for Elections Canada, the amendment to the Canada Elections Act was “an effort to modernize election laws” that was done at the same time as revising rules on political financing. There were few British citizens left in Canada that hadn’t naturalized by the end of the 1960s, he added, and there were few concerns regarding the revision.

Although Ontario revoked voting rights on the municipal level for British citizens in 1985, within recent years the issue has resurfaced in the state capital, Toronto. Proud of its status as one of North America’s most international cities, Toronto in 2009 saw the revival of a movement for foreign suffrage that aroused a great deal of debate. Backing the move was Mayor David Miller, himself the child of an immigrant single mother. The National Post quoted Miller as saying at a panel discussion last June that “From my perspective, you can’t be an inclusive and open government unless all of the residents have an ability to choose that government.”

Even more recently, mayoral candidate and city Councilor Adam Giambrone announced in his campaign speech earlier this month that he would back foreign suffrage because “Extending the municipal vote to permanent residents is both the right thing to do, and it’s the smart thing to do.” However, Giambrone dropped out of the race Feb. 10 after news of a sex scandal broke, stumping both his political career and prospects for foreign suffrage in the city in the near future.

Australia too took voting for citizens of other Commonwealth countries off the books in 1984. The move took place in what an Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) official called simply “a change of law” put into place due to the position of the Labor government of the time. Regarding the change, the AEC Web site simply says, “It was the view of all political parties and governments, State and Commonwealth, that Australian citizenship is the appropriate basis for the franchise. Parliaments in all States soon passed complementary legislation.”

To the chagrin of some, however, Commonwealth citizens registered to vote in Australian elections before 1984 retained that right. According to the September 2009 Electoral Reform Green Paper there are nearly 160,000 noncitizens still entitled to vote in federal elections, the majority of them Brits. Labor MP Daryl Melham, the head of Australia’s parliamentary committee on electoral reform, is on a mission to change this by 2014, thus giving Poms “a fair suck of the sav” in terms of time to naturalize, he says. As he told the BBC in June, “We still love you guys, but not enough for you to keep the right to vote.” (Interestingly, as Commonwealth citizens, Australians are eligible to vote and even run for office in the U.K.)

Within the United States, historically citizenship was not a requirement for voting at the federal level in over 40 states, for either all constituents or those who intended to naturalize. This came to an end gradually, and by 1926 no aliens had the right to vote in a national election.

Today, perhaps only the United States rivals Japan in terms of the ferocity of the debate over the rights of foreign citizens to vote. A growing and increasingly vocal immigrant population has created a tide of fresh initiatives within recent years. According to the book “Democracy For All: Restoring Voting Rights in the United States,” over a dozen jurisdictions have active noncitizen voting-rights movements, including cities with large immigrant populations such as New York City, San Francisco, Washington and Miami.

On the other hand, the movement to keep resident aliens from voting has been just as strong, as local and state level governments grow increasingly concerned in particular about illegal immigration. In 2008, a group of Republican congressmen introduced a bill to the House of Representatives, titled the Noncitizen Voting Prevention Act of 2008, that would have made false claims of citizenship for the purpose of voting a deportable offense. The bill was never passed, however, and was cleared from the books soon after.

Currently, noncitizens are allowed to vote in local elections only in a handful of municipalities in Maryland. Famously, foreign residents were allowed to vote in school board elections in New York City until Mayor Michael Bloomberg dissolved elected boards of education in 2003. In Chicago, noncitizens still have that right.

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of foreign suffrage is New Zealand. As a Commonwealth nation, New Zealand has long given British citizens the right to vote in national polls. Explains David Henry, chief executive of the Electoral Commission of New Zealand: “We’ve traditionally had a lot of British citizens who, in those days, had free right of entry and were treated as New Zealand citizens.”

However, during the 19th century voter turnout was so low that, according to the Elections New Zealand Web site, only about half the population eligible to vote was enrolled. As voter eligibility expanded to gold miners and women — and, indirectly, to the Maori — the progress toward universal suffrage boosted the population of active voters, and helped transfer governmental power from the hands of the elite to the working class.

Voting rights were extended to noncitizens in 1975 at both the local and national level. In some of the most liberal regulations of any nation, any permanent resident is eligible to vote provided they have been living in the country for the past 12 months.

“Essentially, I think it’s a reflection of the history of immigration in New Zealand,” says Henry. “Foreign residents are treated as citizens, and citizens have the right to vote.”

Elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, voting is a mixed bag. In Argentina, the government does not allow for resident alien voting in national elections, but allows provinces and other municipal areas to make their own decisions. In Uruguay, permanent residents of 15 years or longer have national voting rights while in Venezuela it takes 10 years; in Colombia it’s only five, and in Paraguay just one, but only for local elections.

Brazil, on the other hand, does not allow voting for permanent residents, but gives Portuguese permanent residents “the rights inherent to Brazilians” under its constitution. The colonization of Brazil has resulted in deep political and cultural connections between the two countries, and today Brazil and Portugal have numerous bilateral agreements, including on voting rights.

Voting rights for permanent residents are notably absent in most of Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Political unrest in areas of Africa and central Asia — not to mention strict immigration policies in many countries — are among the causes. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the resurgence of long-suppressed nationalism after the collapse of communism has also played a role. In the Middle East, where religion and government go hand in hand and immigration is often both a religious and ethnic issue, alien suffrage is uncommon.

Within Asia, the South Korean government made two big leaps simultaneously in 2005 by lowering the voting age to 19 and ushering in foreign suffrage in local elections for those who have been permanent residents for three years or more. According to the National Election Commission, at the time of local polls in May 2006 there were only 6,579, mostly Taiwanese, residents that benefited from the new legislation on noncitizen voting rights.

“Korea is now the first nation in Asia to grant voting rights to foreign residents,” The Herald newspaper quoted Kim Cheol, deputy director of public relations at the Nation Election Commission, as declaring. “We hope this will accelerate a move to integrate foreign communities into the homogenous society.”

The issues of foreign suffrage in South Korea and Japan are deeply interlinked due to the legacy of Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and the end of the war. There is speculation that one of the reasons the move was made in Seoul was in the hope that Japan would give similar rights to its foreign residents, particularly the nearly 600,000 Koreans who live here. South Korean foreign and trade minister Yu Myung Hwan hinted as much during a meeting earlier this month with Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, and again called on Japan to grant local-level suffrage to permanent residents, a measure Okada said the government was “considering.”

Acknowledging the rights of immigrant groups, “recognizing special ties among particular groups of countries” and reciprocation are often part and parcel of granting suffrage, says Michele Wucker, executive director of the World Policy Institute. The EU, the Commonwealth, Brazil, Portugal and Spain are cases in point. However, the decision in South Korea had the effect of enfranchising mostly Taiwanese immigrants rather than being a “quid pro quo” reform benefiting Japan, and the country has thus far only indicated that it hopes for a similar move here in Japan. Also worth noting is that whereas 6,000 noncitizens benefited from the law change in South Korea, there are over 900,000 permanent foreign residents in Japan, including over 400,000 “special permanent residents” — mostly Koreans and Taiwanese who lived in Japan before and during the war, as well as their descendants.

So what about the argument that, rather than give voting rights to permanent residents, they should be encouraged to naturalize instead? This attitude is prevalent in North America, where noncitizen voting rights have been rolled back. In contrast, Chile introduced alien suffrage to in part to compensate for its slow, inefficient nationalization system.

“If people feel that they are part of a community with their neighbors, then they are more likely to embrace national values and even apply for citizenship as well,” suggests Wucker. Indeed, movements in Toronto as well as Rome have used this argument in pressing for the involvement of immigrant groups in local politics, though demonstrating objectively that granting foreigners the vote leads to an increased demand for naturalization has proved a challenge.

“I think enfranchising immigrants is the logical next step in the fulfillment of the practice of democracy,” says Ron Hayduk, political science professor at the City University of New York, author of “Democracy For All” and vocal supporter of immigrant suffrage. Proponents of noncitizen voting such as Hayduk believe that while citizenship is a viable solution for some, for those such as Japan’s Zainichi Koreans, the decision to renounce citizenship of their home country is not only an issue of loyalty, but also of familial ties and material investments, particularly as Japan does not permit dual citizenship.

But while municipalities around the globe buy into foreigner suffrage under the principles of “No taxation without representation” and immigrant involvement, there is no one-size-fits-all policy for giving noncitizens the right to have a say in what many strongly feel is an arena where only naturalized or native-born citizens have a role to play.

“What works in one jurisdiction isn’t going to necessarily work in another,” Hayduk admits, “but precluding the option to vote for long-term residents creates opportunities for continued inequality and discriminatory policies.”

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