What influences the electoral participation of immigrant voters?

Kareem El-Assal
Published: September 6, 2021

With Canada holding an election on September 20, the federal parties are currently campaigning to win as many votes as possible, including from immigrant voters.

Of course, there is no such thing as the "immigrant vote". Canada's immigrants are as diverse as Canada itself. Immigrants do not lean toward one particular party. This is because they come from completely different countries, cultures, political traditions, and socio-economic backgrounds.

That being said, they tend to reside in Canada's most vote-rich ridings, namely in the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. That makes them the subject of charm offensives by the various parties who each seek to highlight their pro-immigration credentials. Experts in Canada such as John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail and Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Public Affairs have written on the increasing importance of immigrants in Canada's elections.

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Others in Canada have conducted research and written on the factors that influence immigrants on whether or not they will go to the polls. It is important for us to understand these factors for a number of reasons. One reason is Canada seeks to ensure that its immigrants settle and integrate into its society. Integration is key to immigrants enjoying successful lives in Canada and it is difficult for immigrants to integrate if they do not participate in our democracy.

Another reason it is important for us to understand what drives immigrants to the polls is so we can identify how to maximize the participation of immigrants in Canada's democracy. If the research shows there are certain contributors that hinder immigrant voting than policymakers and other stakeholders can come up with solutions to tackle such barriers.

Time spent in Canada: Statistics Canada research shows immigrant voter turnout rises over time spent in Canada. This is likely due to immigrants needing time to become more civically engaged and learn about Canada's political system and parties.

Democratic tradition: Statistics Canada research also shows that immigrant voter turnout corresponds with democratic tradition in each immigrant's country of origin. Immigrants arriving from stronger democratic traditions tend to be more likely to vote in Canada than their counterparts who arrive from countries with less of a democratic tradition. Lack of trust in institutions is cited as one reason why those who arrive from countries with less democracy may be less likely to vote in Canada.

Gender: Gender is another factor that influences immigrant voting patterns with Statistics Canada data showing that females from certain regions of the world are more likely to vote than men, while the opposite holds true for other parts of the world. However the overall voting rate among immigrant men and women is comparable. This suggests differences in gender voting patterns among immigrants has more to do with culture rather than gender itself.

Socio-economics: Age, level of education, and income have been shown to be larger determinants of voting patterns among the Canadian-born population than for immigrants. That is, Canadian-born citizens who are older, more educated, and have higher incomes tend to be more likely to vote. However the research suggests that this is not necessarily the case for immigrant voters, with education and income having a lesser influence on immigrant voter turnout. There are other socio-economic factors that may influence immigrant voter participation in Canada but not much research is available. For instance, to what extent does English/French language proficiency influence their electoral participation? Elections Canada cites language proficiency as a potential barrier for immigrants.

What does this all mean?

Perhaps the main takeaway here is that immigrants need time to get settled in Canada. Once the settlement process is complete, immigrants have more of an opportunity to gain insights into Canada's political process and parties. This helps to explain why their participation in elections is initially lower, but then rises over time to be at nearly the same level as Canadian-born citizens.

While political participation may not be their top priority in their initial years in Canada, immigrants do end up playing a very active role in Canadian elections. A major way to get immigrants more involved in elections shortly after becoming citizens is by helping them to expedite the learning process. Teaching them about Canadian politics early in their newcomer journey could encourage them to turn out in larger numbers shortly after obtaining citizenship.

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