What if foreigners could vote in US elections?

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 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.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

5 thoughts on “What if foreigners could vote in US elections?”

  1. By the way, I was speaking loosely in suggesting that “foreign aid” is a “global public good.” Most kinds of foreign aid are far from clear cases of what in public finance calls a “public good.” Food security in sub-Saharan Africa, is great for Malawians or Congolese, and seems well deserving of funding through public or private charity if anything is, but food is rival and excludable, a private good. Foreign aid to support food security is redistribution, not public goods. But you can make sort of weaselly arguments about how we FEEL BAD about poverty in Africa, so if say, Germany, or Norway, supports famine relief in Malawi, Americans and Britons etc. benefit from not feeling bad. People always want to insist that education is a public good, even though it’s rival and excludable. Again, there are weaselly arguments about how more education reduces crime or improves “public health,” public health being another somewhat weaselly phrase, since it’s properly applicable to contagious diseases but tends to get cross-applied to all sorts of areas where people want the government to be involved without having very good arguments for it. It’s common for people to try to mask redistribution, which seems vaguely like theft, as public goods. Anyway, if we DO concede that education is a public good, then foreign aid to support education should presumably be considered a public good, too. Clearer cases of global public goods are counter-terrorism, policing the high seas, and science and the arts.

    1. Re foreign aid, I think you could argue the public shares your position. That wouldn’t be an airtight argument, but it could fly: I believe most polls of Americans on how they want to divvy up federal spending suggest that Americans want to “reduce” the level of government foreign aid to a level much higher than it is today.

      In response to your post, this is an interesting thought experiment. One idea I think I’ve obliquely hinted at in the past is that citizens would never stand for the way immigration bureaucracies treat their “customers”. People complain like mad about the DMV or the TSA; yes, these bureaucracies are particularly torturesome, but they are nothing compared to the Kafkaesque senselessness we observe in many immigration bureaucracies, who by design serve people they are totally unaccountable to. Public choice theory strongly suggests that it would be an immense surprise if immigration bureaucracies were providing anything close to the optimal level of customer service: the very sovereigns in whose name immigration bureaucracies act have no reason to ever deeply think about how these bureaucracies function, let alone hold these bureaucracies accountable.

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