Scotland extends voting rights to non-nationals. Which parties might benefit?

Bernhard Clemm
3 min readMay 6, 2021

When the Scots elect a new parliament today (May 6th), it’s a premiere: For the first time in Holyrood’s history, foreign nationals who reside in Scotland will have the right to vote. An estimated 55,000 will join the electorate of about 4.2 million. For some people seeking refuge from undemocratic countries, this might be the first time ever they can vote in free elections. Although 55,000 votes are unlikely to swing the election, what are the newcomers’ preferences?

Polls usually do not include data on citizenship. However, one survey done by Opinium/Sky in early April did ask respondents whether they were on the UK electoral register (which means that they cannot vote in the UK general elections but are entitled to vote in Scotland). The chart below shows the voting preferences of these non-citizens. The voting preferences of non-nationals are shown in the darker shade, of nationals in the lighter shade. A clear picture emerges: The Conservatives are less, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Greens more popular among foreign nationals (these differences are statistically significant, see note).

This is only one poll, so do not draw definite conclusions. Another Opinium poll from March shows potential gains for Labour and Lib Dems (but not the Greens), but it has far fewer non-national respondents.

Is there a general pattern to voting preferences of non-citizens elsewhere? Many countries, especially in Europe, have pushed for voting rights for foreign residents, mostly on the local, but also on the regional level. For example, in 2002, people without Austrian citizenship were granted voting rights in the Vienna “state” elections, before the Constitutional Court overturned this extension. (Austrian states are the highest sub-national level of government.) In general, EU member states are obliged to grant voting rights to legal residents in local and EU elections.

Thus, the prospect of more voting rights extensions to non-nationals is somewhat plausible. To find out what this might mean for parties, I looked at data from the European Social Survey (2018 wave). The survey asks about “closeness” to political parties in a wide range of countries, whether a respondent has citizenship or not. I excluded countries for which less of 5 percent of respondents were non-citizens. This left me with eleven countries — most of them in Western Europe. For each country, I put all parties with a popularity of less than 5 percent in one bucket (“Other”).

On the plot below social-democratic/leftist parties are shown in red or burgundy, Green parties in green, conservative parties/rightwing parties in black or blue, liberal/centrist parties in yellow. Again, percentages for nationals are presented in the light shade, for non-nationals in the darker shade.

A pattern emerges: Conservative and right-wing parties never win and almost always loose. The winners are mostly Social Democrat and Green parties. This is perhaps unsurprising. But the differences are sizable. Take the example of Spain: Among Spanish nationals, 29 percent felt closest to the Socialist Party. Among non-nationals, the percentage was 54 percent. In contrast, the conservative People’s Party was preferred by 18 percent among nationals, but only 8 percent among non-nationals.

Note that the data are from 2018, so we do not know how things have changed since. Also, it is unclear whether these preferences — implicitly referring to the national level — would translate into sub-national elections (the only level where realistically we might see franchise extensions, just like in Scotland).

Find the code for this analysis on https://github.com/BernhardClemm/non-citizen-voting.

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