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Feb 20, 2010

Non-citizen Voting in Toronto: A Case of Too Little, Too Soon?

February 20, 2010

Phil Triadafilopoulos discusses voting laws for non-citizens in editorial published by the Mowat Centre.

Should non-citizens be given the right to vote in municipal elections? A good many people, including the Mayor of Toronto, think they should.

There are strong arguments for expanding the municipal franchise to include non-citizen permanent residents, drawing as they do on deep democratic traditions. It is hard to deny the logic of “no taxation without representation.”

Yet, context is important. While the democratic benefits of the municipal franchise are undeniable in countries where immigrants’ admission to nationality is hindered by long residency requirements and other impediments, they’re less obvious in Canada, where a liberal naturalization regime featuring a relatively short residency requirement has facilitated immigrants’ access to full citizenship and the panoply of rights that comes with it. Seen in this light, local voting rights offer too little. Yet, in the absence of some residency requirement, the conferral of the even these limited rights may come too soon – before immigrants have acquired requisite language capabilities and familiarized themselves with the institutions, issues and norms of democratic politics in Canada. I elaborate on each of these points below.

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Why Non-citizen Voting May Offer Too Little

Contrary to much of the language used to advance municipal voting rights for non-citizens, immigrants are not “excluded” or “disenfranchised” in Toronto. This is because they have relatively easy access to full Canadian citizenship and, with it, the right to vote and run for office at all levels of government.

In order to qualify for citizenship an immigrant must: be a permanent resident of Canada and have lived in Canada for at least three of the four years preceding his or her application; be able to communicate in English and/or French; and be able to demonstrate basic knowledge of Canadian history, geography, law and political institutions. Applicants must also swear an oath of allegiance, pay a fee of $200 and not be deemed a threat to national security or have a record of certain criminal offences.

By any international standard, these are low hurdles. The relative openness of Canada’s citizenship regime is confirmed by the fact that immigrants in Canada naturalize more quickly and at a higher rates than in other liberal-democratic states, including other “immigration countries,” such as the United States. For example, whereas 43 per cent of all adult immigrants living in the United States acquired citizenship in 1990, the figure in Canada for the same year stood at 73 per cent. This trend was sustained through the 1990s and 2000s.

Enfranchised immigrants have demonstrated that they are able and willing to put their political rights to use. Several studies demonstrate that turnout among immigrant voters is identical to that of Canadian-born voters and that immigrants are more likely than Canadian-born citizens to pay attention to election news in the media and watch leaders’ debates.

Given the openness of Canada’s citizenship regime, words like “exclusion” and “disenfranchisement” must be carefully qualified. Immigrants in Canada are not “excluded” from citizenship; rather, they are on their way to acquiring it.

And full citizenship is far more robust and powerful a tool for articulating political voice than the partial citizenship provided by the municipal franchise. This is especially true given the complexity of our system of multilevel governance and the preponderance of jurisdictional power granted to the provincial and federal levels of government. Truly playing a role in shaping political outcomes requires more than the municipal franchise. This is why, from a democratic point of view, extending the municipal franchise to non-citizen voters is too little.

Why Non-citizen Voting Rights Shouldn’t be Granted Too Soon

The few empirical studies of non-citizen voting trends in Europe and elsewhere have noted that, despite extension of the franchise to non-citizen voters, turnout rates remain frustratingly low. For example, participation rates among non-citizens in Dutch municipal elections are well below those of Dutch citizens. Turnout rates for non-citizen voters in Takoma Park, Maryland – which is often cited as an example by local municipal voting rights advocates – are also well below turnout rates for citizens. The same holds for Sweden and other cases.

Explanations of this gap focus on two factors. First, non-citizen voters tend on average to be poorer than citizens, and poverty is correlated with low rates of political participation. Second, immigrants’ unfamiliarity with the official language(s) of their adopted home also plays a role in turnout. One is unlikely to participate in an election if one does not understand the election materials or language of political discourse.

How might immigrants acquire greater language proficiency? Time is the most important factor, allowing for exposure to language and the development of familiarity with its idiomatic usages in political discourse. Hence, language acquisition through day-to-day exposure reinforces civic education. It helps build the confidence needed to stand up and make one’s voice heard in the public sphere – to move from being an object of politics to an active subject.

Time also allows for the building of affective attachments: to one’s city, of course, but also to one’s province and adopted country. And naturalization, especially when accompanied by participation in symbolic rites of political passage such as citizenship ceremonies, provides a powerful recognition of this growing familiarity and attachment.

Given all this I would suggest that a better strategy for advancing immigrants’ democratic prospects lies in ensuring that Canadian citizenship remains accessible to newcomers. We should therefore be wary of calls to extend the residency requirement for naturalization, or otherwise make the acquisition of Canadian citizenship more difficult. As compared to full citizenship, the benefits of non-citizen voting in Canada are highly qualified. Let’s aim to keep it that way.

For an alternative take on municipal voting rights for non-Canadians, see Municipal Voting Rights for Non-Canadian Citizens by Myer Siemiatycki.


Phil Triadafilopoulos

Release Date

February 20, 2010


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