E.g., 06/24/2024
E.g., 06/24/2024
Globally, Voting Rights Have Increased for Immigrants and Emigrants

Globally, Voting Rights Have Increased for Immigrants and Emigrants

Iraqis voting abroad from Jordan.

Iraqis voting abroad from Jordan. (Photo: IOM)

Who would travel internationally to vote in an election? Thousands of Irish living abroad did just this to participate in Ireland’s 2018 referendum that legalized abortion. How about being able to vote in national elections after just one year of residence in a new country? New Zealand has used such a system since 1975 to offer expansive voting rights to legally present noncitizens.

Around the world, the ability of emigrants to vote in their origin countries and of immigrants to vote in their residence countries have fluctuated over the years, but have generally increased. These rights tend to be limited and almost always depend on legal status and government oversight. Where such rights are offered, some but not all migrants are often eligible to vote in some but not all elections, such as for local ordinances but not national office.

There can be significant misinformation and mischaracterization of immigrants’ eligibility to vote, as there has been recently in the United States. Noncitizens, whether lawfully or unlawfully present, are legally barred from voting in U.S. federal elections and no state permits noncitizen voting in statewide elections. A small number of U.S. municipalities in California, Maryland, and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia, permit noncitizen voting in certain local elections. Immigrant voting is more widespread elsewhere. For example, EU citizens living in another EU Member State enjoy many social and economic benefits, as well as some voting rights, in their new country without having to acquire citizenship—at least until a rupture such as the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union pushes them to get a different status or naturalize to keep those rights.

Throughout history, governments at various levels around the world have allowed non-naturalized immigrants and emigrants—and sometimes their descendants—to participate in elections. In the United States, 40 states had policies at various points between independence in 1776 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939 allowing noncitizen men to vote. Sometimes emigrants form a crucial voting bloc for candidates in the origin country. In 2010, for example, Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori visited a Peruvian stronghold in New Jersey to campaign for the diaspora vote. Turkish politicians have repeatedly gone to Europe, especially Germany, to win votes of emigrants there, including with rallies ahead of the 2023 presidential election. And for Mexico’s upcoming June national elections, eligible Mexicans residing in the United States will be able to cast ballots at one of 20 in-person stations at Mexican consulates. Moreover, there are 16 countries—including Algeria, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Italy—that reserve a certain number of seats in their national legislatures solely to represent citizens abroad. Unauthorized immigrants are generally barred from voting in national elections in countries with robust systems for tracking immigrants' status, such as those in North America and Europe.

Debates over who can vote—who belongs—determine the political identity of communities and countries. For immigrants, being able to vote is often part of a long journey of settling in and can signify a crucial moment of belonging in one’s new country. For emigrants, being able to vote “back home” is a critical way of maintaining ties there. With about half the global population in 2024 living in countries with national elections, it is important to know who has access to the ballot box and why.

This article provides a global overview of voting rights of noncitizen residents (immigrants holding certain documents and legal statuses) and nonresident citizens (emigrants and sometimes their descendants who hold passports issued by the origin country).

Migrant Voting: A Growing Global Trend

As of 2020, noncitizens with appropriate documents and legal statuses could vote at some level in about 50 residence countries; certain citizens from 141 origin countries could vote from abroad in those countries’ elections. Why would states grant voting rights to noncitizens and the diaspora? The fall of the Iron Curtain, a new wave of democratization, the Maastricht Treaty forming the European Union, and faster travel and communications have all contributed to an increase in voting rights for immigrants and emigrants, in particular since the 1990s. 

The topic of migrant voting may seem controversial because it disrupts the common understanding that enfranchisement is a right bounded by both citizenship and territory. But these ideas have always been malleable. In general, countries have routinely changed the rules on who can vote, which historically have depended on factors including sex, literacy, minimum age, property ownership, and certain mental or physical health standards. For too long, half the population was considered less than full citizens of their countries, but women now are able to vote in every country in which elections occur, with those in Saudi Arabia acquiring the right most recently, in 2015. Sometimes ethnic and religious discrimination disenfranchises certain groups. In the United States, for instance, racial discrimination was upheld in practice until the 1965 Voting and Civil Rights Acts, although many observers note that there remain high barriers for certain voters. The evolution of voting rights demonstrates whom leaders want to include or exclude in the political community, with current voters sometimes having a say as well. Migratory status is just one aspect under consideration.

Historically, early pioneers of noncitizen voting included the United States and Chile. Parts of the United States allowed noncitizens to vote in some elections starting in the 18th and 19th centuries and Chile did so in 1925 (see Figure 1). Although in those days the only people who could vote were small groups of White men.

Figure 1. U.S. States Allowing Noncitizens to Vote, by Period, 1700-1939

Notes: Figure shows rights to vote at any level, including local, state, and national elections. Figure shows states’ current territorial boundaries and does not show growth or evolution of states over time. Not shown are Alaska and Hawaii, which have never allowed noncitizen voting.
Source: Ron Hayduk, Marcela García-Castañon, and Vedika Bhaumik, “Exploring the Complexities of ‘Alien Suffrage’ in American Political History,” Journal of American Ethnic History 43, no. 2 (2024): 70-118.

Since then, some countries have reversed these rights, while others expanded them. For instance, Chile now automatically considers all legally present foreign-born adults to be eligible to vote after five years of residence, allowing noncitizens to participate in both local and national elections. Ecuador similarly allows legally present noncitizens to vote after five years of residence. New Zealand allows permanent residents to vote after just one year in the country. Norway lets foreign nationals vote in local elections after three years of residence.

Multicountry organizations also allow different forms of immigrant voting. The Andean Community comprising Bolivia, Chile (an associate member), Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru allows Member State citizens residing elsewhere in the bloc to vote in local elections after two years. Some of the 56 Commonwealth countries have similar agreements allowing certain immigrants to vote in national elections without becoming citizens. And across the 27 EU Member States, nationals of other EU countries can vote in local (but not usually national) elections after a certain period of residence, and for the European Parliament.

Emigrant Voting Rights Have Become the Norm

Rules allowing voting by emigrants also have a long history. Members of the military and diplomats were voting from abroad in the 19th century. In the 1890s, for instance New Zealand and Norway let certain citizens vote while at sea. People fighting in both World Wars could also cast votes back home in Canada, France, and the United States.

These days, allowing members of the diaspora to vote seems to be the norm. Citizens abroad could vote in just nine origin countries in 1970, but now that is true of most places, usually so long as they maintain their citizenship and meet other voting requirements (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Countries Allowing Emigrants to Vote, 2020

Note: Figure shows countries with legal provisions for emigrant voting, whether or not the state implements them in practice.
Source: Elizabeth Iams Wellman, Nathan W. Allen, and Benjamin Nyblade, “The Extraterritorial Voting Rights and Restrictions Dataset (1950–2020),” Comparative Political Studies 56, no. 6: 897-929, available online.

In a way, the expansion of voting rights mirrors the growing embrace of multiple citizenships. Before (and still in some countries), those who became citizens of a new country often had to renounce their original nationality, which was then not passed on to children. Wives were also usually stripped of their original citizenship if they married a foreign national. Restrictions over who can keep their citizenship reflect another normative view of loyalty. Acceptance of multiple citizenships has spread especially since 1960, and as of 2020, 76 percent of countries allowed their citizens to hold an additional citizenship. While not accepted everywhere or for everyone, overall societies and governments increasingly recognize that one can live, work, or study abroad and remain a loyal citizen of their origin country. Allowing multiple citizenships is a recognition that people can hold ties to more than one place at the same time; the spread of voting rights recognizes the same for emigrant and immigrant populations.

Granting Rights: Not an All-or-Nothing Game

Voting rights are nuanced. Globally, noncitizens are more often allowed to vote in local or municipal elections, such as for mayors and governors, rather than for national leaders such as presidents and legislators. This gives people a political voice in their immediate communities. Citizens abroad meanwhile are more often allowed to vote only in national elections, rather than in local ones.

Governments have designed a variety of procedures and requirements for immigrants and emigrants to vote. For example, newcomers must typically hold certain types of residence permits (usually not student or diplomatic visas) and live in the new country for a specified period of time—at least one year, and sometimes up to 15. In some cases, such as in Washington, DC, and a handful of other U.S. jurisdictions, both legally present and unauthorized immigrants can vote in certain local elections. For citizens abroad, some countries allow emigrants to vote only for a number of years and then revoke the right afterwards, barring voting also for their children, who have never lived in the origin country.

Besides these requirements, countries and political parties can make it easy or difficult for individuals to register and vote. Low barriers include automatic voting registration and voting by mail. High barriers for citizens abroad may require a trip to register in person at an embassy months before the election, then another trip to a faraway polling station to vote in person on election day. Nearly 1 billion people are expected to vote in India’s weeks-long 2024 general election, which began April 19, but the 13.6 million Non-Resident Indians can vote only if they do so in person; another 18 million Overseas Citizens of India cannot vote at all. Mexico requires a voter ID (credencial para votar) from the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE, or National Electoral Institute). While previously this card could only be obtained in person in Mexico, since 2016 emigrants have been able to obtain it from consulates in the United States (where 97 percent of Mexican emigrants live) and elsewhere. Procedures such as this that make it easier to vote are, unsurprisingly, associated with increased voter participation.

International agreements can also give special treatment to certain nationalities, such as the aforementioned rights for EU nationals throughout the European Union and for some across the Commonwealth. Other agreements offer easier paths to residence, nationality, and national-level voting rights, such as for Brazilians in Portugal and Irish in the United Kingdom, often reflecting a shared linguistic and colonial history. Special treatment holds for various South American nationals in Spain, which also extends local-level voting rights to noncitizen residents from Cabo Verde, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Trinidad and Tobago, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, since Spanish nationals can reciprocally vote in those countries. Beyond international migrants, similar practices are sometimes used in national territories and protectorates; residents of American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and other territories can vote in U.S. party primaries, for instance, but not federal elections.

Incumbent parties also sometimes directly or indirectly disenfranchise certain people by reversing or withholding migrants’ voting rights in all or select elections. Nicaragua formally first allowed citizens to vote from abroad decades ago but has never implemented a process for it to occur. Venezuela similarly officially allows voting from abroad, but in practice many emigrants fail to overcome the high barriers to register. South African leaders implemented then reversed external voting three times, seemingly hoping to avoid opposition votes. Again, migrants are not the only ones affected by these kinds of policy swings. Some Indian states have allegedly prevented native-born Muslims and other minorities from being able to vote. Native-born voters living in rural areas or small towns worldwide may face longer distances to travel to vote when polling stations are installed in only urban areas. In most places across the United States, millions of U.S. citizens convicted of a felony or another crime cannot vote, often even long after they have completed their prison sentence.

Granting voting rights is not a binary policy decision, and implementation has a lot of grey zones. Even countries that offer some form of migrant enfranchisement maintain plenty of leeway for context-specific choices. This applies for migrant voting and candidacy rights, as well as for the countries reserving legislative seats to represent emigrants. Migrant voting on paper and practice is most democratically legitimate when states implement it consistently over time, aim for low barriers to register and vote, and get as close as possible to universal suffrage.  

Migrants Tend to Behave Like Other Voters, but Not Exactly

Whether immigrant or native born, people vote or do not vote for a variety of reasons. Being interested in politics is a major determinant for using one’s limited time and energy to register and vote. Encouragement from political parties or others can also be a factor. So can the presence of important elections when individuals feel something big is at stake. In these ways, immigrant and emigrant voters behave similarly to other voters.

But migrants—as both immigrants and emigrants—are also often connected to such issues in two or more countries. Many are in a continuous state of simultaneity, in which they miss people and customs in the origin country while also are adapting and nurturing connections in the residence country. Both may feel like home. Following and participating in politics in two places requires at least twice as much time and energy than doing so in just one. This duality makes migrant voters different from others.

Migrants’ voting behavior may be affected by the length of time away from the origin country and amount of time in the residence country, their age when they moved, and their plans to move again. Geographic distance to the origin country also matters, as does whether they send money back, own property there, and return for visits. Individuals’ experiences in both countries are relevant. Migrant voters listen to politicians from different parties in different places, with different histories and political systems, leaders, and perhaps distinct political values and priorities. They may interact not only with schools, health care, police, and other institutions like all other residents, but also with the many government agencies involved in immigration and diaspora affairs, which can affect whether and how they vote.

Given different systems, how do migrants transfer their political experiences and actions across borders? They bring their experience and ideology with them as they travel, but migrants do not simply transplant all previous knowledge and habits from one place to another. They know that a new political system offers different parties as well as new opportunities and drawbacks.

This can manifest in different ways. Migrants with experiences of state repression, corruption, and food rationing, for example, can flourish in more democratic environments. Compared to natives without such experiences, they may more critically engage with the news, be more skeptical of political promises, or more quick to recognize signs of autocratization and democratic backsliding. Yet migrants with positive experiences of trustworthy institutions and free and fair elections may refuse to participate when they detect a lack of transparency or fraud in either their origin or residence country. Both past and present experiences, positive and negative, can shape migrant voters’ political behavior.

Overall, migrants who are able to vote do so less than other voters. Some are uninterested in politics, just like the native born who abstain because of uninterest or apathy. But there is also a practical dimension, given the challenges of following politics, registering, and voting in a new country or from abroad. For most governments, making voting logistically easier for citizens abroad does not take priority. Given the presence of electoral autocracies, individuals who consider a country undemocratic may not want to vote there. Or they may feel that their migrant status is vulnerable and fear the regime or authorities in one country or the other.

In general, international migrants who hold voting rights participate where they have familial, territorial, or sentimental ties, which tends to be where their close family members live, especially when they feel belonging (to a group or place) or a sense of civic duty or responsibility. Critically, ties can exist in more than one place, are country-specific, and change over time.

Future Trends

While migrants may face complicated choices about whether, where, when, and how to vote, it is governments that, by allowing multiple citizenships and enabling migrant voting, are setting the boundaries of the political community and demarcating who legally and politically belongs in it. Western democracies require some sort of identification to register and to vote, and there is no evidence that unauthorized immigrants participate in elections illegally in anything approaching a meaningful level. The political community dictates who can participate and over time has generally expanded the electorate through electoral and nationality laws. More governments and societies have broadened relations between migrants and states, via immigration policies and diaspora outreach. At the same time, more countries have accepted the idea that mobile people are often politically connected to two or more places, usually through nationality in one country (as an emigrant or descendant) and residence in another (as an immigrant).

Citizenship also remains a strong force. As a social concept, it has changed time and again to fit the prevailing views of the day. A century and a half ago, full citizens in some places comprised only 5 percent of an entire population, since such status was limited to landowning men of a certain racial or ethnic background. Immigrant and emigrant voting entail another such shift in the ever-changing political community, similar to removing past barriers to suffrage based on sex, literacy, religion, and skin color. Political participation, including voting, is a core aspect of democracy, and government efforts globally to expand the number of people who can participate are a part of democracy’s long and increasingly expansive evolution.

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