Non-Citizen Voting Rights and Politicians’ Behavior in the UK

As the 2024 U.S. presidential election approaches, the heated debate about immigration shows no signs of cooling. A question simmering in this broader debate is whether immigrants should have a voice at the ballot box in their communities before becoming citizens. 

While non-citizens cannot vote in federal elections, Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Maryland allow immigrants who are legal permanent residents to vote in local elections, and this is under consideration in New York, Illinois, Maine and Massachusetts. This controversial question cuts to the core of how we view citizenship, representation and belonging in an increasingly globalized world.

The United Kingdom offers a perspective on this complex issue. From the early 20th century, the U.K. has granted immediate voting rights in all elections to Irish citizens and Commonwealth immigrants upon their arrival. However, other immigrants do not receive these rights. 

The Commonwealth, which consists of countries that were once part of the British Empire, was established not because of a significant influx of immigrants into Britain during that time but to preserve the unity of the Empire. The group comprises 56 member states including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Cyprus and Malta, showcasing a diversity of cultures and economic backgrounds.

For elected officials, this presents a delicate balancing act. On one side are the enfranchised immigrants who can voice their opinions through voting. On the other side are the disenfranchised who remain voiceless in the electoral process until completing the lengthy path to naturalization. 

There might be positive electoral incentives for elected officials to court-enfranchise immigrants by promoting their policy preferences and interests. Giving immigrants a voice in the democratic process could encourage integration. But taking such an immigrant-friendly stance risks alienating parts of the native electorate who view immigration as a threat to their heritage and way of life. Conversely, leaving immigrants disenfranchised preserves the status quo while marginalizing a growing segment of the population.

New research reveals this has tangible effects on how immigrants and natives engage in politics and how British politicians represent immigrant populations.

What do enfranchised immigrants actually do with the vote? Data show they enthusiastically engage in the political process through consistent election turnout and grassroots activism, especially among those hailing from robust democracies that have prior experience with their voting rights. 

Also important, enfranchised and disenfranchised immigrant groups are relatively similar in terms of gender, marital status, education levels, employment opportunities, and life satisfaction on average. The historical ties of enfranchised immigrants to the Commonwealth do not necessarily make them more politically informed or foster greater trust in U.K. institutions than other immigrant groups. Disenfranchised immigrants also do not report feeling overly discriminated against due to their lack of voting rights.

Enfranchised immigrants’ ability to hold politicians accountable translates into increased representation in Parliament. Research indicates that members of Parliament representing constituencies with higher enfranchised immigrant populations are more inclined to advocate for those communities’ causes by making public speeches in Parliament.  

However, this favorable treatment ignites a backlash among native-born Britons who may think their interests are being forsaken. This has resulted in declining votes for establishment parties and a corresponding surge for alternative parties that take a harder line on immigration. In response to these rising electoral costs, Parliament has compensated by voting to restrict future immigration to align with the preferences of the majority native population.

U.K.’s experience illustrates the intricate tensions between representation, integration and majority rule in diverse democracies. Granting voting rights to immigrant groups can amplify their political voice and participation, but it also risks fueling nativist backlash. Restricting the franchise may preserve the existing balance of power but marginalize a growing segment integral to a nation’s social fabric and economic vitality. 

As demographics continue shifting across immigrant-receiving nations, policymakers confront difficult trade-offs with no easy answers. Carefully weighing the consequences of enfranchising or excluding immigrant voices will shape national identities and the democratic process for future generations.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.