April 15, 2013

Direct Democracy Could Hurt Minorities

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Dr. Dominik Hangartner, methodology, London School of Economics, presented his research paper — which examines how Swiss governments discriminated against immigrants based on their country of origin — to students and faculty at Cornell Monday.

The paper, “Does Direct Democracy Hurt Immigrant Minorities? Evidence from Naturalization Decisions in Switzerland,” was previously published in the American Political Science Review.

Alex Street, visiting fellow at the Cornell Institute for European Studies, introduced Hangartner as “a rising star in political science.”

Hangartner said he thinks direct democracy is a system through which where citizens have direct power in decision making.

That system, even when well-intentioned, can put minority groups who have less power at a disadvantage, Hangartner said.

“Many people argue that [direct democracy] gives people the most direct ways to influence policy without legislative filters that may stagger decisions,” Hangartner said. “But because the majority decides, what are those effects on minorities?”

He compared the phenomenon to the Arizona SB 1070 Act, which requires all alines who remain in the United States to have identification documents in their possession at all times.

Hangartner looked at Swiss immigration and naturalization policies to substantiate his concerns about the effects of direct democracy on minorities.

In Switzerland, naturalization involves background checks, language tests and assimilation measures, which take three to five years to complete, Hangartner said. Municipalities then accept or reject applications through ballot votes or through elected politicians, he added.

Hangartner and the co-author of the paper, Prof. Jens Hainmueller, political science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, surveyed 2,596 municipalities in Switzerland to acquire samples of citizenship applications and the data from approved and rejected applications.

“We found that an applicant from the richer European countries, like Britain and Norway, had a higher chance of getting citizenship than from the poorer countries, like Yugoslavia and Turkey, even if they were identical in assimilation and in language skills,” Hangartner said.

According to Hangartner, in 2003, the Swiss Supreme Court declared some forms of direct democracy unconstitutional and forced certain municipalities to change to representative democracies.

Previous direct democracies did not have the option of a repeal for naturalization, which is the reason why they switched to representative democracies, according to Hangartner.

The switch was positive for immigrants seeking naturalization, as naturalization increased by 50 percent, he said.

“Twelve-thousand people were naturalized from the switch, so it’s a large increase for Switzerland, [which] has a long waiting period and is slow at naturalization,” Hangartner said.

Hangartner looked for reasons for the increase, including potential for bribery, and political preferences, but found accountability for one’s actions to be the major factor behind the increase in naturalizations.

“In direct democracy, there’s no mechanism to ensure that votes are non-discriminatory. In representative democracy, those few politicians have to give reasoning for rejections, and the applicant can appeal,” said Hangartner. “They are accountable to their choosing, which constrains their decision making power.”

His second study found that those who were rejected and then naturalized were more informed in politics, feel less discriminated and as a result are more willing to stay.

“Even though the economic benefits may be small, there’s a non-economic value in naturalization,” Hangartner said.

Original Author: Kevin Milian