ZOOM Colloq: Ali Emre Benli (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity, Goettingen, Germany): Should refugees vote?
Should refugees vote?
ABSTRACT: Should refugees vote? There are a variety of views against it. Some maintain that the lack of political rights does not bear urgency. But this is wrong. Individuals are deeply wronged when they are left without any political rights. In contemporary political communities, political rights are fundamental for exercising autonomy as well as maintaining self-respect. Moreover, they are indispensable for the protection of other basic rights. If this is the case, I argue that states have human rights obligations to secure the political rights of refugees within their territory, as they are the sole agents able to do so.
Which political rights should refugees then have? Perhaps the most fundamental ones are the rights to political expression, assembly and association. What about voting rights? There are democratic principles that demand broadening the demos in a way that includes refugees. Yet, some caution against it. Views to the latter end point at the conditions for a functioning democracy. They argue that individuals need to have the relevant capabilities and be in a relationship of trust and solidarity in order to see the outcomes of decision-making as legitimate. This relationship, they further claim, is only sustained among citizens. Until and unless refugees become citizens, therefore, they should have no access to voting rights.
The intuition behind this argument is plausible. Any case for broadening the demos needs to consider its implications on the functioning of democratic processes. Yet, what ensures the quality of democratic processes? For some, it is national identity. This, I show, is too demanding. Still, democratic processes require the existence of social ties. Refugees who have only arrived in host states lack such ties. Those who argue for immediate state-level voting rights of refugees are then too hasty in their conclusions.
This is not the whole picture of voting, nonetheless. There are also supranational institutions that govern the lives of refugees, where the conditions for a well-functioning democracy need not be as demanding. In turn, refugees residing within the jurisdiction of a supranational body should vote in its decision-making mechanisms. The paradigmatic case is the European Union (EU). Refugees residing in the EU should have the right to vote in its supranational institutions.