Does Direct Democracy Hurt Immigrant Minorities? Evidence from Naturalization Decisions in Switzerland

The forthcoming article “Does Direct Democracy Hurt Immigrant Minorities? Evidence from Naturalization Decisions in Switzerland” ( by Jens Hainmueller and Dominik Hangartner is summarized by the authors below.

AJPS Author Summary: Does Direct Democracy Hurt Immigrant Minorities?

What happens to ethnic minorities when policy is decided by a majority of voters rather than elected politicians? Do minorities fare worse under direct democracy than under representative democracy? 

We examine this longstanding question in the context of naturalization applications in Switzerland. Immigrants who seek Swiss citizenship must apply at the municipality in which they reside, and municipalities use different institutions to evaluate the naturalization applications. In the early 1990s, over 80% of municipalities used some form of direct democracy. However, in the early 2000s, following a series of landmark rulings by the Swiss Federal Court, most municipalities switched to representative democracy and delegated naturalization decisions to the elected municipality council.

Using panel data from about 1,400 municipalities for the 1991–2009 period, we found that naturalization rates were about the same under both systems during the four years prior to the switch. After municipalities moved from direct to representative democracy, naturalization rates increased by about 50% in the first year, and by more than 100% in the following years. These 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.

What might explain this institutional effect? Voters in referendums face no cost when they arbitrarily reject qualified applicants based on discriminatory preferences. Politicians in the council, by contrast, must formally justify rejections and may be held accountable by judicial review. Consistent with this mechanism, we see that the switch brings a much greater increase in naturalization rates among more marginalized immigrant groups. The switch is also more influential in areas where voters are more xenophobic or where judicial review is more salient.

More broadly, our study provides evidence that, when taking up exactly the same kind of decision, direct democracy harms minorities more often than representative democracy.

About the Authors: Jens Hainmueller is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University and  Dominik Hangartner is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at ETH Zurich and in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Their research “Does Direct Democracy Hurt Immigrant Minorities? Evidence from Naturalization Decisions in Switzerland is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.