EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

Non-EU nationals living in Europe don't have many voting rights but some countries do allow them to cast a ballot in local elections. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?
Where in Europe can foreigners cast a ballot in local elections? (Photo by LAURA BOUSHNAK / AFP)

In December 2021 the New York City Council passed a law granting local voting rights to non-USA citizens with permanent residence (the “green card”) or a valid work authorisation, starting from 2023. 

Whether the decision will become reality is still in question, as the law is being challenged in the Supreme Court. But for the time being, New York joins Chicago, San Francisco and some other US municipalities allowing foreign nationals to vote. 

As this happens in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, what is the situation in Europe? The answer is, “it’s complicated”.

The general principle is that voting rights are based on citizenship and each country makes its own rules. When electoral rights are granted to non-nationals, these are usually limited to local elections and do not extend to national ones. So neither EU nationals or non-EU citizens are able to vote for example in French presidential elections or German parliamentary elections, unless of course they have taken citizenship in those countries.

Common arrangements are established at the European Union level for EU citizens who move to other member states. They can vote in municipal elections in the country where they live and can choose to vote in the host country or at home for the election of the European Parliament.

In addition, some EU countries have signed other regional or bilateral agreements that guarantee voting rights to non-nationals. 

So where can non-EU citizens vote in the European Union? This is where things stand in the EU and in particular in the nine European countries covered by The Local.

The Nordics

In addition to EU citizens, Denmark allows all non-nationals to vote in local elections as long as they have at least four years of residence. 

Sweden, Finland and Norway (which is not part of the EU) have similar rules, but in Sweden and Norway the residency requirement is three years and in Finland it is two years on the 51st day before the election.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland also mutually guarantee the right to vote for municipal and regional councils as part of the Nordic Passport Union. 

Spain’s bilateral agreements

Another country that grants municipal voting rights to some citizens beyond the EU is Spain. Madrid has signed bilateral agreements with Norway, Iceland, the UK, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand, Peru, Paraguay, South Korea and Trinidad y Tobago. The residency requirement is set in each agreement.

Other EU countries that grant local voting rights to non-EU citizens are Belgium, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia. Again, each country has its own residency requirements. 

Portugal has agreements on voting rights in local elections with Brazil, Cape Verde, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, as well as with the UK for citizens who were living in the country before Brexit. Some Brazilian residents have full voting rights in Portugal.

Ongoing debates

Austria, France, Germany and Italy do not allow non-EU citizens to take part in local elections, although the issue has been debated in recent years. This would require constitutional changes, however. 

In Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, foreign nationals do not have the right to vote at federal level but they can participate in some cantonal and communal elections. Information on the political rights of non-Swiss citizens is available from this map on the Swiss Confederation website.

A special situation concerns UK citizens in the EU, who have lost the automatic right to vote in municipal elections when the country left the bloc. They can still vote, however, where this is allowed to non-EU citizens and the British government has negotiated bilateral agreements on local voting rights with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. 

But do foreigners bother voting? 

Having the right to vote, however, does not necessarily mean exercising it. The European Commission has found that electoral participation of EU citizens living in other EU countries is below average. 

Among the difficulties there are a lack of awareness about voting rights, the sometimes burdensome registration requirements, the lack of familiarity with the voting system or with local politics, as well as language problems.

In November the Commission proposed changes to current rules asking member states to better inform EU citizens about their rights and make information available in at least one other language. 

The ECIT Foundation, a group working on EU citizenship in Brussels, said the Commission could be more ambitious. The group requested in particular the creation of “dedicated helpdesk” for EU citizens moving across borders to “proactively engage with electoral rights before, during and after elections to maintain a constant engagement of electoral participation.”

ECIT Founder Tony Venables noted that, in some countries, the extension of voting rights to EU nationals has led to the inclusion of non-EU citizens too and better information about elections is likely to benefit also non-EU citizens. 

The ECIT Foundation is among the organisations behind the European citizens initiative “Voters without borders” which is calling on the EU to grant full political rights to EU citizens moving around the bloc. 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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Opinion: Getting foreign-born Swedes to vote in 2018 should be a key issue

Getting more foreigners to become politically integrated in Sweden should be a key issue in the build-up to the 2018 election, argue migration professor Pieter Bevelander and political scientist Mikael Spång.

Opinion: Getting foreign-born Swedes to vote in 2018 should be a key issue
File photo of a polling booth in the 2014 election. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

There is a year to go until the 2018 election and debates over what form of government can be formed are already underway. The same of course applies to what parties voters will vote for, as well as their representation in the Riksdag, county councils and city councils. Participation and representation are important in this context, both in general and in terms of the differences between different groups. In a new Delmi report published earlier in September, 12 researchers from different disciplines studied the participation, voting patterns and political representation of foreigners.

Swedish voter participation is among the highest in Europe, but there are big differences between people born in Sweden and those born abroad. In the last Riksdag election, almost 90 percent of natives voted, compared to 75 percent of citizens born abroad. And the variation between different groups of foreign-born citizens is large.

The lowest voter participation is found among individuals born in Asia, Africa and European countries outside of the Nordics. The fact that the majority of those immigrating to Sweden today come from precisely those regions provides an indication that voter participation could fall further in the future.

Foreign citizens who have been registered as living in Sweden for at least three years also have the right to vote in municipal elections. However only a third of foreign citizens exercised that right to vote.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Sweden's part leaders ahead of the 2018 election

People born in Sweden to foreign-born parents vote to a higher degree than those who immigrated themselves, which in all likelihood is due to the socialization that growing up in Sweden entails. At the same time some similarities remain from the parents’ generation, as voter participation is lower among individuals with a foreign background than those with Sweden-born parents.

Women also vote to a greater degree than men. That applies to people born in Sweden as well as most foreign-born groups. The study also supports previous research showing that foreigners tend to vote for parties on the left. People from countries outside of Europe are most likely to vote for the Left Party and Social Democrats. Another new result we found in the report is that foreigners are more likely to vote for an individual candidate (as opposed to the party) than natives, a pattern found in municipal, general and European Parliament elections.

What's the basis of these differences? Two important factors are: education level and income. We have known for some time that individuals with a low income and education vote to a lesser degree. Foreigners are overrepresented both in groups with the lowest incomes and lowest education.

How long a person has lived in Sweden and whether you have Swedish citizenship also has a major bearing on the likelihood to vote. Many of those who have come to Sweden relatively recently have not yet joined political life. The difference between foreigners with and without Swedish citizenship is striking. About 70 percent of foreigners with Swedish citizenship voted in municipal elections in 2014, compared to 30 percent for foreigners without Swedish citizenship.

Political integration is now just expressed in a group’s voting patterns. The chance to be a candidate for political posts is also central for participation in a representative democracy. In this regard there are also differences between native and foreign-born people. Representation of foreign-born citizens in the Riksdag, county and city councils has certainly increased during the last 20 years, but the group is still underrepresented. Following the last election, the number of foreign-born MPs was eight percent, while the proportion of foreign-born people in the population eligible for election was 12 percent. In the city council the representation gap is somewhat larger.

The report shows that socioeconomic factors as well as differences in education, employment and income between native and foreign-born people only partially explain the representation gap at a municipal level, even if the capacity for these factors to explain differences has increased over time.

An interesting result that we flagged up in the report is the importance of the number of city council seats in relation to the size of the population eligible to vote. As much as a third of the representation gap at aggregate levels can be explained by the fact that foreigners are more likely to live in larger municipalities than natives, where the number of council seats proportionally available to the voting population is significantly lower than in smaller municipalities.

Internal factors within parties also impact the opportunities for foreign-born candidates to be nominated for election. Factors that are important to party recruiting are, among other things, knowledge, linguistic ability and network. A role as an “immigrant politician” can sometimes offer a way into politics but in the long run can also become a hindrance to a continued political career.

Another kind of obstacle can come from the party’s internal democratic process and calculations. Being foreign born can be an advantage if the party wants to increase its number of voters in a particular group or region, but it can also be a hindrance when the party weighs the potential gains from certain voters against the risk of losing others.

The report’s results provide reason to contemplate the political integration of foreigners as well as the future of democracy. The fact that even children of foreigners vote to a lesser extent than children of those born in Sweden is concerning, and prompts questions about democratic education on a more general level. The fact that voting for an individual is higher among foreign-born voters can be interpreted in several ways, either that the group is engaged and well-informed, or that confidence in individual politicians is stronger than that of parties or ideologies.

In the world around us liberal democracy has been challenged in recent years. When faith in democratic governance decreases among large groups, among both foreign-born and natives, we face more profound problems than the fact that not all citizens have their votes and perspectives represented in decision-making bodies. Considering the parliamentary situation at present, the voting deficit among people with a foreign background should be perceived as an area of huge potential for political parties. If voter participation increases among groups with low political participation, that could also impact the parliamentary stalemate we are experiencing right now.

READ ALSO: This is who Swedes want to be PM in 2018

Getting new Swedes to go out and vote and get involved in political work should be a central democratic task for all political parties ahead of the election in 2018.

This is a translation of an opinion piece originally published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter.