“A willingness to acquire citizenship is an important and empirically proven hallmark of successful integration,” Dr. Michaela Slotwinski, a researcher at ZEW’s “Social Policy and Redistribution” Department and a co-author of the study, says. “Voting rights for non-citizen residents affect the attractiveness of naturalisation.”
Immigrants from poorer countries more likely to acquire citizenship
The authors assessed foreign residents and their countries of origin by standard of living based on the Human Development Index (HDI). The study found that refugees and persons from less developed countries were more likely to acquire Swedish citizenship if they voted in an election as soon as they became eligible, i.e. three years after moving to the country. The share of those who acquired Swedish citizenship four years after voting in the election – seven years after they originally immigrated – was 64 per cent. This was 17 percentage points higher than a control group of foreign residents who were ineligible to vote. Among foreigners from industrial nations who were eligible to vote, by contrast, the likelihood of acquiring citizenship declined. Only 59 per cent of them became naturalised over the following four years. This was around ten percentage point less than in the control group.
“The findings show that voting rights for non-citizen immigrants is of great import,” Slotwinski summarises. “Overall, the effect of the right of foreigners to vote appears to depend on the country they come from. For people from poorer countries, being able to vote primarily had a motivating effect. For immigrants from developed countries, the opposite was the case: the ability to vote as non-citizens disincentivised them to acquire citizenship. For foreign residents from countries with medium-range standards of living, no effect was observable. This does not mean, however, that voting eligibility made no difference. Here it is more likely that the one effect offset the other.”
Right to vote in local elections even without citizenship
The authors of the study considered three elections during the 2002–2010 period in Sweden. Foreign residents may vote in communal and regional elections provided that they have lived in the country for at least three years at the time of the election. The researchers identified foreign residents who were eligible and not eligible to vote and calculated the likelihood that they would later acquire citizenship. For each election, they compared foreigners who established residency up to ten days before and after the voting eligibility cut-off. The restriction to the ten-day period around the cut-off ensured that the groups were comparable along all other metrics, such as length of residency.
Foreigners in Sweden can acquire citizenship after three to five years of residency, with no language or financial requirements. “When foreigners can vote in the land in which they reside, they take part more quickly in political processes,” Slotwinski notes. “This experience can help motivate foreign residents to integrate into society and acquire citizenship.” But at the same time, Slotwinski stresses, that very experience can also act to slow integration. “If citizenship is no longer necessary to vote, an important incentive for its acquisition disappears.”