Compulsory voting and immigration legislation

The Swiss referendum on migrant quotas has prompted some excellent debate.

Alex Nowrasteh does some investigation into anti- and pro-migration legislation by U.S. states and finds some correlation evidence around higher migrant populations leading to more pro-migration legislation. His conclusion, “To avoid some of the worst anti-immigration laws, it seems that the immigrant population only has to literally outgrow them.” He is responding to Tyler Cowen’s claim that when a country heads towards 27% of the population being born overseas, the possibility of a backlash increases, which in turn prompted a counter-claim by Bryan Caplan about how low diversity areas voted most prominently for anti-migration measures.

Australia is an interesting example. Unlike many European countries and the U.S., Australian law is founded in a system of compulsory voting. This means elections tend to reflect the population as a whole, as opposed to those who are more politically active. If being a migrant means there is less chance of political participation, then anti-migration laws may prosper even in places with strong migrant populations. This may help explain the Swiss result.

It’s hard to make inferences on these topics, so much of which is guess work. However, I’d guess that Australian compulsory voting plays a strong role in limiting any anti-migrant legislation. The political support of ethnic groups in Australia is actively sought, historically something associated with the ALP. However this overlooks a more complex, modern picture where across the political spectrum, active engagement with ethnic communities is a established part of election campaigns. This is to be expected in a country where over one in four is born overseas and one in two has a parent born overseas.

Does this limit the attraction of anti-migrant legislation, such as stricter limits on welfare? I’d venture a tentative yes. If this is true, it’s another example of compulsory voting as a strong influence on policy outcomes in Australia. This is a topic often left to the hard-core political scientists but many more people in the policy community should take stock of the effects, especially when comparing Australian outcomes in social and economic policy with overseas outcomes.


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