Direct Democracy

Direct democracy and immigrant minority rights

What happens to ethnic minorities, when the majority of voters instead of elected politicians, decide on policy? Do minorities fare worse under direct democracy than under representative democracy? This research project examines this question in the context of naturalization applications of immigrants in Switzerland.

Eligible immigrants that seek Swiss citizenship have to apply at the municipality in which they reside and municipalities use different institutions to decide on the naturalization applications. Some municipalities adopted the purest form of direct democracy: citizens vote on each application in a secret ballot referendum. How do immigrants fare when their naturalizations are decided with referendums? The researchers collected and analyzed data for more than 2,400 applicants that faced popular votes between 1970 and 2003. The results show that success in such naturalization referendums depended strongly on the applicant characteristics. Whereas the applicants’ language skills, economic success, and integration status played almost no role for winning a majority of yes votes, the applicant’s country of origin was by far the most important driver of naturalization success. Among otherwise similar applicants, the risk of being rejected by voters was more than 10 times higher for immigrants from Turkey and (the former) Yugoslavia compared to immigrants from Italy or Spain. The statistical evidence also showed that this origin-based discrimination was much stronger in more xenophobic municipalities. For more detailed information, see the first paper.

But do immigrants fare better if naturalization requests are decided by elected politicians, instead of voters? The researchers collected data on naturalization decisions from over 1,400 municipalities for the period between 1991 and 2009. In the early 1990s, over 80% of municipalities used some form of direct democracy. However, in the early 2000s – following a series of landmark ruling by the Swiss Federal Court – about 600 municipalities switched to representative democracy and delegated application decisions to the elected municipality council.

The researchers found that there was no differential trend in the naturalization rates during the four years prior to the switch. However, once municipalities switched from direct to representative democracy, naturalization rates dramatically increased by about 50% in the first year, and by more than 100% in the following years. Overall, the statistical results demonstrate that, on average, immigrants fare much better if their naturalization requests are decided by elected officials in the municipality council instead of voters in referendums. The data also showed that the effect of switching to representative democracy varied by origin: naturalization rates increased by only 3% for immigrants from Italy and by only 35% for immigrants from Germany, but by 68% for immigrants from Turkey and by even 75% for immigrants from Yugoslavia. So in summary, representative democracy led to far fewer rejections for more marginalized origin groups. For more detailed information, see the second paper.

Overall, then, the results indicate that many qualified immigrant applicants who were rejected by voters in naturalization referendums would be Swiss citizens today, if their application had been decided by elected officials in the municipality council. Direct democracy provides a significant barrier for access to citizenship and it is most disadvantageous for those immigrant minorities who are the most marginalized in society. The empirical evidence suggests that naturalization applications should be decided by elected municipal councils in order to minimize the risk of discriminatory rejections.


> Who Gets a Swiss Passport? A Natural Experiment in Immigrant Discrimination
American Political Science Review 2013 
Link Download Paper 1

> Does Direct Democracy Hurt Immigrant Minorities? Evidence from Naturalization Decisions in Switzerland
American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming 2015) 
Link Download Paper 2

Press Coverage

SRF Swiss Radio and Television, Video and Audio Stream (German)
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Le Temps, article (French)
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Thurgauer Zeitung, article (German)
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