What if foreigners could vote in US elections?
March 13, 2013 2 Comments
I’ve sometimes wondered why foreigners can’t vote in US elections. “What?” you ask. “Why should they be able to? That’s crazy!” Well, they do have a stake in it. Many of them pay attention to US elections. They are affected by the outcomes of US elections. To grant foreigners the right to vote in US elections might seem, prima facie, to be obviously against the interests of US voters, whose ability to choose their own government would be diluted. Yes, but what if it were reciprocal?
For example, suppose that the US and Canada made an agreement, whereby every Canadian got 1/5th of a vote in every US election, and every American got 1/5th of a vote in every Canadian election. Never mind the electoral college and whatnot for now, just think of the math. If there are 300 million Americans and 20 million Canadians (close enough for now), Canadian votes would have a pretty small weight in US elections, while American votes could potentially dominate Canadian elections. Canadians might still take the deal, though, if US policies affect them heavily and they want to have a say. On issues of domestic policy without international ramifications, it might not matter much: Canadians wouldn’t have reason to care about them one way or the other. But there would probably be narrow issues, say fishing rights in the North Pacific, which might be important to many Canadian voters and not on Americans’ radar screens at all. It’s not that such issues would decide US elections; rather, US politicians would flip pre-emptively to prevent them from doing so. It might lead to more harmonious international relations and stronger alliances. For haters of George W. Bush, consider this: he wouldn’t have had a chance if every European got 1/5th of a vote. But for supporters of the War on Terror, consider this: there would be a lot more Tony Blairs, and a lot fewer Jacques Chiracs, in the world. Free trade would almost certainly benefit. So might collaboration on global public goods, e.g., CO2 emissions, NATO military spending, international transfers and foreign aid. It could lead to more funding for science, which has positive spillovers. Americans voting in German elections would ignore many German domestic issues but might respond to appeals for funding science and technology, or protecting patents.
The effects are hard to predict, but one thing, I think, is almost certain: It would lead to much more freedom of migration. Suppose the issue is: how easily will American issue work visas to Canadians? Americans will know virtually nothing about the issue. Canadians will know a lot. An American candidate’s share of the Canadian vote would depend heavily on his position on the Canadian visas issue. The issue would probably have very little visibility in the US. Even if the Canadian vote was small– say 1 million effective votes, compared to 100 million cast in the US– it would be well worth gaining at such a negligible cost. By the same token, American voters would quickly secure for themselves the right to work in Canada. And it would not be a question of annexation. Canada would still have an independent government, as would the US.
My co-blogger John Lee is good at evoking horror at the arbitrariness, the fundamental neglect of basic justice and human rights, of which immigration systems are guilty. I think a little democracy would take care of this in a hurry. US consuls would not remain m mini-dictators for long if foreigners had a say in the matter. Gratuitous, senseless, cruel visa denials would go viral among foreigners, and politicians would look for ways to make the process tolerably just to appease the foreign vote, with its small but far from insignificant weight, and probable unanimity.
The idea of foreigners voting in US elections, and vice versa, is at once simple and unheard-of, which makes me suspicious of it. If it’s as good an idea as it seems at first glance, why haven’t I heard anyone else suggest it? But I can’t see what is wrong with it. It seems like it could actually be Pareto-improving, its main effect being to correct policies that injure foreigners out of all proportion to any benefits they provide to natives. Immigration restrictions are the most obvious case, but foreign policy, global public goods, and trade restrictions are other examples. I think the idea deserves to be part of the conversation.