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I have noticed that while many constitutions guarantee voting rights for its citizens, these provisions are often phrased in a way that does not preclude expanding such right to people beyond the explicitly stated demographic.

A common way of phrasing it would be: "X has the right to vote..." rather than "ONLY X has the right to vote..."

Here are some examples:

Swedish constitution, Chapter 3, Part 3, Art 4:

Every Swedish citizen who is currently domiciled within the Realm or who has ever been domiciled within the Realm, and who has reached the age of eighteen, is entitled to vote in an election to the Riksdag.

Estonian constitution, Article 57:

An Estonian citizen who has attained eighteen years of age has the right to vote.

German constitution, Article 38, Clause 2:

Any person who has attained the age of eighteen shall be entitled to vote; any person who has attained the age of majority may be elected.

In these cases, the provisions seem to imply an inclusive attitude - rather than an exclusionary attitude - towards suffrage, so would it be constitutional for the respective countries to pass legislations that grant voting rights to people beyond what is explicitly mentioned? Such as:

  • Permanent residents
  • People who have attained 16 years of age

It would also be interesting to know whether some countries have actually passed legislations to test this theory.

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  • That Question might be useful if you re-phrased it. As it stands, can you say why there might be a problem, or even a contrast? Guaranteeing voting rights for citizens is one thing. Guaranteeing voting rights so as not to 'preclude expanding (that right/such rights) to people beyond (whatever)…' adds what? Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 21:58
  • There's an argument (which may be summarized as "vote dilution") that these declarations are necessarily exhaustive.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 23:23

6 Answers 6

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In the UK, there is no distinction between "the constitution" and ordinary legislation. so the answer is a clear yes: the extensions of the franchise across social classes in the 19th century (Reform Act 1832, Representation of the People Act 1867); the extension of the Franchise to women (Representation of the People Act 1918); the equalization of voting ages for men and women (Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928); and the lowering of the voting age to 18 (Representation of the People Act 1969) were all enacted by ordinary Acts of Parliament.

Sometimes, it doesn't even need a full act of the central Parliament: both the Scottish Parliament (with respect to its own elections and local elections and referenda in Scotland) and the General Synod of the Church of England (with respect to all elections, although it's only actually exercised the power with respect to its own elections) have sufficient delegated power to extend the franchise, and have used it to lower the voting age to 16.

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    Am I reading this correctly that the Synod of the Church of England could theoretically extend the franchise with respect to the general election? That can't be correct?
    – blues
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 9:08
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    @blues - You'd be amazed at the power that some institutions and individuals technically hold in the UK due to our age as a nation and the fact the statute books have never really been torn up and rewritten. I can't tell you about this specific case though. The fact is that if they did try to do that, parliament would overturn it and remove their power within 24 hours without a doubt. So they may technically have the power, but they couldn't actually exercise it. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 12:08
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    @blues Under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919 (as amended), a Measure of Synod can do anything that an Act of Parliament can do - yes, including extending the franchise for the general election. That's not quite as shocking as it sounds, because getting a Measure of Synod passed does involve a (single) vote in each House of Parliament. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 12:22
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    I think for the UK it would also be useful to expand on the exclusionary position for the sake of the question; UK citizens that hold a passport and unlimited right to return to UK soil may not vote in UK elections if they have not lived on UK soil for over 15 years.
    – Skrrp
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 19:13
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    @chepner A Bill/Act of Parliament would require first, second, and third readings in each House of Parliament; a Church Measure can do anything a Bill/Act of Parliament can do, but needs only one vote in each House of Parliament (plus one vote in each of the Houses of Laity, Clergy, and Bishops of General Synod). Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 13:36
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This seems to be a nice overview of countries with non-citizen suffrage: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-citizen_suffrage

Also interesting might be the section about the EU where EU citizens can vote in local elections of EU countries that they reside in. As far as I know there was a Scottish person being the mayor of a German town who had to resign because of Brexit.

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    But at least in Spain, the constitution had to ammended to allow EU citizens to vote. Do you know of any country where it was not needed to change the constitution?
    – SJuan76
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 13:11
  • @SJuan76 If I'm reading the history correctly, EU citizens in Ireland could vote in the 1999 EU elections, while at the same time, a referendum on constitutional amendment was successfully passed on the same day defining local elections in the constitution for the first time, and delegating who could vote to ordinary law. Previously, it looks like a modified version of pre-independence law had applied, with no entrenched status.
    – origimbo
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 17:14
  • @SJuan76 No constitutional change was needed to permit EU citizens to vote in the UK while it was a member, except insofar as all legislation touching on constitutional issues might be considered to be a change in the uncodified constitution.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 1:27
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    I'm giving bounty to this answer because it is a good starting point to think about the question. Though I think the totality of all the answers underneath add up to the best answer. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 2:49
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    @SJuan76 After some digging, I believe Czech Republic is one of the few that managed to allow EU citizens to vote in local elections by legislation and without constitutional amendment. Their legal basis for this is that they have a duty to follow international law, and since EU directive request so, the constitution allows them to do it by legislation. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 5:05
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For , no - and in a very similar manner to what @wonderbear describes for Austria (except that the local parliaments in question are directly mentioned in the constitution).

There is a constitutional court ruling BVerfGE 83, 37 - Ausländerwahlrecht I which says that the people in German constitution article 20 2.:

All state authority is derived from the people. It shall be exercised by the people through elections [...]

are German citizens (and in addition this holds also for elections of Länder, county and communal elections due to article 28).

Summary of the decision:

[1. not relevant here]

  1. Art. 20 Abs. 2 Satz 1 GG bestimmt, daß das Staatsvolk der Bundesrepublik Deutschland Träger und Subjekt der Staatsgewalt ist.
  2. a) Das Staatsvolk, von dem die Staatsgewalt in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland ausgeht, wird nach dem Grundgesetz von den Deutschen, also den deutschen Staatsangehörigen und den ihnen nach Art. 116 Abs. 1 gleichgestellten Personen, gebildet.
    b) Damit wird für das Wahlrecht, durch dessen Ausübung das Volk in erster Linie die ihm zukommende Staatsgewalt wahrnimmt, nach der Konzeption des Grundgesetzes die Eigenschaft als Deutscher vorausgesetzt.
  3. Die den Bundesländern zukommende Staatsgewalt kann gemäß Art. 20 Abs. 2, Art. 28 Abs. 1 Satz 1 GG ebenfalls nur von denjenigen getragen werden, die Deutsche im Sinne des Art. 116 Abs. 1 GG sind.
  4. Auch soweit Art. 28 Abs. 1 Satz 2 GG eine Vertretung des Volkes für die Kreise und Gemeinden vorschreibt, bilden ausschließlich Deutsche das Volk und wählen dessen Vertretung. Die Vorschrift gewährleistet für alle Gebietskörperschaften auf dem Territorium der Bundesrepublik Deutschland die Einheitlichkeit der demokratischen Legitimationsgrundlage und trägt damit der besonderen Stellung der kommunalen Gebietskörperschaften im Aufbau des demokratischen Staates Rechnung.

Automatic deepl translation with some help from my side:

[...]

  1. art. 20 para. 2 sentence 1 GG determines that the people of the Federal Republic of Germany is holder and subject of the state authority.
  2. a) The people of the state, from which the state authority in the Federal Republic of Germany emanates, is formed according to the Basic Law by the Germans, i.e. the German citizens and the persons equal to them according to Art. 116 para. 1.
    b) Thus, according to the conception of the Basic Law, the right to vote, by the exercise of which the people primarily exercise the state authority vested in them, presupposes that they are Germans.
  3. the state authority vested in the Länder can likewise only be exercised by those who are Germans within the meaning of Article 116(1) of the Basic Law, in accordance with Article 20(2) and Article 28(1), first sentence, of the Basic Law.
  4. also insofar as art. 28 para. 1 sentence 2 GG prescribes a representation of the people for the districts and municipalities, only Germans constitute the people and elect its representation. The provision guarantees the uniformity of the democratic basis of legitimation for all territorial authorities on the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany and thus takes account of the special position of the local authorities in the structure of the democratic state.

Note that the right to vote in county and municipal elections for residents who are EU citizens is explicitly granted in article 28 of the constitution:

[...] In county and municipal elections, persons who possess citizenship in any member state of the European Community are also eligible to vote and to be elected in accord with European Community law. [...]


Side note: foreigners may elect Ausländer-/Integrationsbeiräte [foreigners'/inclusion advisory councils] which happens in parallel with the "normal" election, but these councils do not have legislative power, they advise the respective parliament.

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For Austria, the answer appears to be no.

The Constitutional Court (VfGH) decided this in 2004, in decision G 218/03-16.

The Vienna legislature had made a law that said that in elections for the district representation (Bezirksvertretung; the city and state of Vienna is divided into 23 districts, which are the lowest level of elected government in Vienna), non-EU citizens (if they had been having their main place of residence in Vienna for the last 5 years and met all other criteria for being voters other than being EU citizens) could also vote. (The law is quoted on page 3 of the decision.)

The federal constitution does not outright mention that district representations must exist; they are a creation of state law. The Vienna state government argued (essentially) that this meant that the federal constitution also did not require that they be elected in any particular way and that state laws could therefore very well extend the franchise to non-citizens. You can read their full argument in German from page 16 of the decision.

Nonetheless, the court ruled that the principles of the federal constitution did not allow such a law, apparently mainly for the reason that the first article of the federal constitution declares that the law derives from the people. Being a part of "the people" requires Austrian citizenship. (Page 47 of the decision.) So assemblies of general representation (allgemeine Vertretungskörper, see page 44 of the decision) could not be elected by non-citizens except where that was specifically constitutionally required (EU citizens in local elections).

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Whether it's possible will be different for different jurisdictions. Every jurisdiction will have its own laws and jurisprudence. Precedent for one does not really say much about another. Some countries don't even have 'constitutions' that are harder to change than just passing ordinary legislation (for example, the U.K.) Laws, and especially constitutional law, vary quite dramatically from one country to another or even one portion of the same country to another (e.g. one U.S. state to another U.S. state.)

Even if one country has passed such a law via ordinary legislation and had it withstand court challenges, that would only set legal precedent in that country. It would not set any precedent for whether such legislation would be legal in another country with a different constitution and different jurisprudence.

As an illustration of how this can vary even within a country, the U.S. state of Vermont's courts have ruled that a recent law allowing non-citizen residents in Montpelier, Vermont to vote does not violate Vermont's state Constitution. However, New York State's courts have ruled that a similar law in New York City does violate New York's state Constitution and, thus, struck down the law attempting to allow non-citizen residents to vote in local elections there.

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Yes, there are cities in the US that have allowed for non citizens to vote in local elections. New York is

New York City will allow 800,000 noncitizens to vote in local elections

Lawmakers in New York City have approved legislation that will allow about 800,000 legal non-citizens to vote in local elections. The decision centered on one big question - who exactly should have a stake in American democracy? I talked with Ron Hayduk about this. He's a political science professor at San Francisco State University and the author of "Democracy For All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights In The United States."

Laws permitting noncitizens to vote in the United States

Sixteen municipalities across the country allowed noncitizens to vote in local elections as of February 2023. Eleven were located in Maryland, two were located in Vermont, one was New York City, and the other two were in California.

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    See nytimes.com/2022/06/27/nyregion/… for an update on nyc Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 3:42
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    To clarify further on Jonathan's comment, the NYC example is actually a counterexample. It was ruled illegal and overturned by courts. The ruling was on the basis of the New York State Constitution, though, so only sets precedent for New York, not all of the U.S.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 18:11
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    @JoeW It's a counterexample in the sense that it was an attempt to do that by ordinary legislation, but was ultimately ruled illegal precisely because such a change would have required amending the New York State Constitution. So, it's an example of a place where that is not legally possible, rather than a place where it is.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 20:06
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    @JoeW Maybe "counterexample" is the wrong word in that it's not evidence that it's not possible anywhere and I don't mean to claim it as such. Just saying that it's an example of a place where the answer to the OP's question is no, not one where the answer is yes - that is, a place where ordinary legislation cannot legally expand the electorate beyond what is stated in the constitution.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 20:10
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    The problem is that the answer is currently wrong. New York will not allow 800,000 non-citizens to vote because the attempt to do so was ruled illegal and overturned. Replacing NYC with another example (especially if you found one that survived court challenges) would improve the answer.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 20:13

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