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Discrimination of Immigrant-Origin Candidates by Voters: Evidence from Open-List PR Elections in Switzerland

Comparative Politics
Democracy
Elections
Representation
Voting
Candidate
Lea Portmann
University of Lucerne
Nenad Stojanović
University of Geneva
Lea Portmann
University of Lucerne
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Abstract

What accounts for political underrepresentation of immigrant-origin minorities in liberal democracies? In some places, citizens with immigrant background have less opportunities to get on electoral lists because party gatekeepers are biased against them. In other places party leaders actually promote such candidates in order to attract the immigrant votes, but majority voters tend to discriminate against them. The extent of this latter form of discrimination depends on the electoral system. It is very acute in open-list PR systems. In particular, in the peculiar ("free-list") PR used in Switzerland, voters can give not only preference votes for candidates they want to support, but they can also express negative preferences by deliberately crossing off the names of candidates they do not want to see elected. To our knowledge, in no other country the elections to the national parliament allow voters to cross off candidates from their ballots (but a similar option exists at the sub-national level in other countries, for example in the municipal elections in some German Länder). If majority voters want to discriminate against minority candidates, there is hardly an electoral system that can be as inviting. Against this background, we analyse election outcomes and empirically explore the extent of electoral discrimination in Switzerland. We use a novel and original approach, as we could gain access to real ballots cast in Swiss local and national elections. This unique database allows us to track the voting behaviour of citizens by analysing the patters of crossing off with regard to candidates with foreign-sounding names. The deep diversity of the Swiss cantons and municipalities in terms of language, religion, the share of migrant population, political attitudes towards migrants, political culture and the electoral district magnitude allows to draw interesting comparisons which results might be of interest well beyond the Swiss case.