Should noncitizen residents have the right to vote?

In an interview with the Toronto Star’s editorial board, Toronto Mayor David Miller indicated his support for a policy that would extend municipal voting rights to landed immigrants in Toronto. According to Miller, people should have “a real say in the decisions that are affecting them” whether they are citizens or not.

Such a policy, if adopted, would cut against the grain of conventional opinion, which holds that newcomers should integrate and acquire citizenship before they are allowed to vote. Extending the franchise to immigrants, the conventional wisdom maintains, would flood ballot boxes with the poorly informed votes of individuals with divided loyalties.

Rudy Czekalla, a 20-year noncitizen resident of the city of Mississauga, faced that conventional wisdom when he requested that the city change its current practice of prohibiting noncitizen residents from participating on municipal committees and boards. A German citizen who was raised and educated in Canada, Czekalla argued that the city should adopt more inclusive arrangements that would in turn help committees and public policies “reflect the growing cosmopolitan reality” of the city. Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion and city councillors rejected Czekalla’s proposal. One councillor, Nando Iannicca, even suggested that noncitizen residents should stop treating Canada like a “buffet table” of “rights and privileges and good things.”

But is the conventional view fair to noncitizen residents? Is it even consistent with what democracy requires?

A growing number of immigrant rights activists in Canada and even some governments around the globe are answering no to both questions. Voting rights activists point out that noncitizens live, work, pay taxes and, in some cases, are eligible for compulsory military service in their adopted countries, but they have no right to vote in elections that determine who will write the laws and policies that will shape their chosen communities. Mayor Miller notes that voting rights for noncitizen residents would satisfy a principle of democratic legitimacy, according to which people who are affected by laws and policies should have opportunities to participate in the decision-making processes that produce those laws and policies.

Some democracies – primarily those in western Europe – have already accepted that reasoning and have granted local and regional voting rights to noncitizen residents. In the Netherlands and Sweden, for example, voting rights have been extended to noncitizens as a way of ensuring that they have a voice in political decisions that will affect them and facilitating their full and fair integration into their new liberal democratic homes. Moreover, the European Union’s 1992 Maastricht Treaty promised to grant all citizens of EU member states the right to vote in local elections in any other EU state.

Outside Europe, noncitizen voting arrangements have been adopted in more than a dozen countries, including New Zealand and Israel, and even in a handful of towns in the U.S. state of Maryland. Campaigns to extend the municipal franchise to noncitizen residents are active in San Francisco, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The formal political participation of all people living in Canadian cities, and not simply Canadian citizens, may serve not only to satisfy a principle of democratic legitimacy but also to improve the quality of public policy. While landed immigrants already have some opportunities to voice their concerns and offer their opinions, tying those opportunities to a formal vote would improve politicians’ responsiveness to their concerns and opinions. In that case, policy decisions could be made with more and better information about how well certain policies might fare in the neighbourhoods to which they are directed.

In addition, extending the municipal franchise to landed immigrants may serve to increase the speed and depth of newcomers’ integration into Canadian political and social life. To be sure, critics maintain that newcomers should gain political knowledge and develop loyalty to Canada before they are allowed to vote. But it may be that the best strategy for successful integration is participation. That is, newcomers may develop the requisite political knowledge and loyalty more quickly if they are allowed to put that knowledge and loyalty to use during election campaigns. Indeed, it is hard to see why newcomers should develop an attachment to political institutions that currently marginalize their voices while demanding their obedience.

Of course, significant barriers to effective immigrant participation would remain even if the municipal franchise were extended. These include the comparatively lower socioeconomic status of newcomers, difficulties with the languages of public deliberation and the stubborn resistance of some citizens to recognizing the legitimate needs and interests of immigrants and new Canadians. Under these conditions, extending the franchise could facilitate a rise in political cynicism among immigrants as they discover that the right to vote does not automatically produce social, political and economic gains.

On the other hand, that may simply be another lesson that those potential citizens should learn about the reality of political life in Canada. Hopes and expectations must be accompanied by a spirit of compromise and patience. In any case, inclusive political arrangements may offer the best hope we have to overcome those circumstances. Because politicians and policymakers would have to be more responsive to the interests and opinions of enfranchised immigrant residents, chances are that policies would better serve them.

The crucial point is that enfranchised residents can take advantage of the opportunity that democracy offers to fight another day. And that may be just enough to forestall cynicism and, over time, assist immigrants and others in their pursuit of social and political justice.