Electoral discrimination of immigrant-origin candidates

Lea Portmann and Nenad Stojanović

Most of us believe we know what discrimination is and why it is wrong. After all, the term “discrimination” is omnipresent in today’s public discourse. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, defining discrimination is a very complex matter. While political philosophers, legal theorists, sociologists, political scientists and scholars from other disciplines have recently produced new insights, no consensus definition has yet been reached.

And even if we were to agree on what discrimination is, another difficult challenge would remain: how can we empirically measure it? In our article we focus on what we call “electoral discrimination.” It describes the phenomenon of significant electoral penalties incurred by candidates from minority groups running for political office, when majority voters prefer candidates who share their own identity traits. In the US context, numerous studies have explored the supposition that white voters tend to support white candidates over black and Hispanic ones. In the Swiss context, the Electoral Discrimination thesis holds that immigrant-origin candidates, bearing non-Swiss names, face potential discrimination in elections.

It is particularly inviting to explore Electoral Discrimination in Switzerland, because its electoral system (free-list proportional representation) allows voters to cross off candidates from their ballots. In other words, Swiss voters can allocate not only positive but also negative preference votes to individual candidates. For our study, we collected data from real ballots cast in six municipal elections in the Canton of Zurich. We used an open-access database to classify the names of all candidates into two categories: “Swiss” and “non-Swiss”. We then examined whether, all else being equal, candidates with “non- Swiss” names were at a disadvantage.

Our results provide evidence that immigrant-origin candidates did incur a significant electoral penalty in the 2014 municipal elections in Zurich. That is, they received more negative preference votes compared to similar candidates with typically Swiss names. The effect was stronger for candidates who were running on lists of right and center-right parties than for those on lists of left parties. Surprisingly with respect to a previous study, we did not find that candidates with “Western” non-Swiss names (e.g. those from England, Spain or Scandinavia) fared better than candidates with names from the former Yugoslavia or Turkey.

The novelty of our study is that our unique dataset allowed us to explore the phenomenon of Electoral Discrimination in a real-world environment. Compared with prior studies on the same topic – which have typically relied on aggregated electoral data, experiments or surveys – our analysis mitigates some important methodological concerns that have plagued this field of research. We hope that our results and our method will mark a step change in the study of Electoral Discrimination.

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