Abstract: Six million individuals residing in Germany, both European Union citizens and third-country nationals, are excluded from institutionalised political participation each election period, including the recent federal elections in September 2013. This article argues that this lack of rights is corrosive to German democracy because people are kept from weighing in on important issues that affect their everyday lives. It critiques historical understandings of citizenship linked to the nation-state as unfit for the current reality in Germany and presents an alternate framework for voting rights – “urban citizenship” – based on residence.
Whether on the local, state (Länder) or national level, 6 million individuals residing in Germany are excluded from institutionalised political participation each election period, including the recent federal elections in September 2013. Third-country nationals (TCNs) are deprived of active and passive voting rights – European Union (EU) citizens are deprived of these on the state and national levels. This article focuses on active voting rights: the right to vote in public elections. Voting is a fundamental cornerstone of institutionalised political participation and an important right in liberal democracies. The lack of rights for TCNs and EU citizens is corrosive to German democracy because people are kept from weighing in on important issues that affect their everyday lives. Participation through electoral processes would bring non-German citizens into institutionalised mainstream discussions and decision-making circles.
Urban citizenship, thinking of citizenship linked to a local space, helps reshape who belongs and who has a right to a political voice.
There are two approaches to resolving this problem: simplifying naturalisation of migrants or delinking the right to vote from national citizenship. This article argues that Germany should delink voting rights from citizenship status by reconceiving citizenship. Simplifying naturalisation procedures would most likely still involve extensive hurdles, namely assimilation, something we disagree with in principle. We argue that Germany’s current voting rights regime excludes migrants (including refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and residents of non-German citizenship) and contradicts liberal democratic notions. We also argue that many of those residing in Germany without formal citizenship have attained de facto citizenship and have real and substantive claims to the communities in which they live.
Urban citizenship, thinking of citizenship linked to a local space, helps reshape who belongs and who has a right to a political voice. Delinking the right to vote from citizenship using this model would give all those of voting age residing in Germany a fundamental universal human right and would be a powerful signal to all German residents – German nationals and non-German nationals – that the country’s diverse populace is fully part of society. It would also serve as a meaningful step toward a new understanding of German society and would partly undo the country’s democratic deficiency.
This article will first cover traditional conceptions of citizenship linked to the nation-state and provide a brief overview of citizenship in Germany. It will then analyse the meaning of voting and explain voting rights in Germany. Finally, we will argue for delinking the right to vote from citizenship as we know it today and link suffrage (i.e., the right to vote in political elections) to urban citizenship: a model that enfranchises TCNs and EU citizens by giving voting rights based on residence. The right to rights-through-residence in an urban or local space is transmitted to all levels of government. In this case, this means that the urban citizenship model would allow all residents, regardless of nationality, to be able to vote on the local, state and national levels. This would effectively delink voting rights from national citizenship.
Traditional Conceptions of Citizenship
Most academic works on citizenship begin by pointing out that citizenship is a contested concept, and for good reason. It is a concept that is constantly evolving. In order to bring forth urban citizenship as a model for according important political rights to disenfranchised people, it is necessary to look at national citizenship and its defaults because most citizenship regimes, including the German one, are based on national citizenship. Traditional notions of citizenship practice, however, overwhelmingly link it to the nation-state. The following conceptions link rights to nation-state citizenship, which in the context of Germany disenfranchises people without German citizenship of the right to take part in decision-making processes. Urban citizenship, on the other hand, detaches citizenship from rights enabling those people to participate.
National citizenship can be broadly defined as that which legally connects an individual to a country based on a direct kin who is already a national or being born in the territory in question. William Rogers Brubaker contributed to conceptions of citizenship by bringing forth an “ideal-typical model of membership to a nation-state” (1990). He holds that the nation-state is the main government authority that paves the path to citizenship. His model of membership holds that it should be egalitarian (full and equal membership only for citizens), sacred (in symbolic terms every citizen “must make sacrifices … for the state”), national (ethnic nationalism that links citizenship to a cultural community, language, customs, etc.), democratic (participation of citizens in the nation-state), unique (“exhaustive and mutually exclusive” meaning that affiliation can only be to one state) and socially consequential (“membership should entail important privileges” and clearly distinguish between members and non-members) (Brubaker 1990: 380f.).
T.H. Marshall’s influential 1950 Citizenship and Social Class, on the other hand, described full membership as giving the demos an array of civil, political and social rights (Marshall 2009: 148). According to Marshall, industrialisation and the evolution of democracy brought about these rights and a particular order. Civil rights refer to “liberty of the person, freedom of speech, thought and faith, the right to own property and to conclude valid contracts, and the right to justice” (Marshall 2009: 148). Political rights refer to “the right to participate in the exercise of political power, as a member of a body invested in political authority or as an elector of the members of such a body” (Marshall 2009: 148). Social rights, the last element benefiting national citizens, refer to “the right to … economic welfare and security … to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilised being according to the standards prevailing in the society” (Marshall 2009: 148).
While Marshall’s trajectory for the attainment of these rights held truth for some countries in the given time period, the emergence of the contemporary welfare state has seen a decoupling of national citizenship from civil and social rights. Political rights, however, such as the right to vote and be elected into office, are in many cases still linked to national citizenship of the state in question.
Tomas Hammar (1990) introduced the term “denizenship”, which refers to long-term residents of a state who are neither “aliens” nor full members of their country of residence, and who have been accorded a range of rights, e.g., the freedom of speech for all, the freedom of movement (for residents, but not asylum seekers) or the access to social services traditionally only open to citizens. However, even in Hammar’s new notion of citizenship, electoral rights remain a citizen’s privilege.
This selective overview of citizenship in the realm of nation-states highlights several problems. Many of Brubaker’s points are unrealisable with today’s globalised demographics. Germany’s immigration history is multifaceted. For example, so-called “guest-workers” were enlisted in order to help rebuild post-Second World War Germany from the 1950s to the 1970s, Germany has hosted refugees from different countries and global migration has and is taking place due to a vast range of motivations, e.g., job-market, family reunification, etc. Germany is not a homogenous country with one ethnic group whose political and legal affiliations belong only to Germany.
The closest an institutionalised right to vote not directly linked to national citizenship comes is in EU citizenship.
Traditional citizenship conceptions are highly discriminatory. None of the authors presented conceives of citizenship as a fundamental human right accorded to all peoples in a given polity. Instead, these rights are linked to national citizenship.
The closest an institutionalised right to vote not directly linked to national citizenship comes is in EU citizenship. This was created in the early 1990s and allows EU citizens to vote in local elections in EU member states. For example, a Spanish person who has been living in Germany for ten years, works and is active in his or her community is now allowed to vote on the local level. However, this person is not allowed to participate in elections on the state or national level, although many decisions influencing his or her life are taken at these levels. While this kind of transnational citizenship challenges national citizenship, the nature of EU citizenship still links it directly to national citizenship of a nation-state (in this case an EU member state) and does not allow for voting on the state and national level.
A variety of factors, including the aftermath of the Second World War, labour migration and the arrival of individuals seeking refuge in Germany, have led to a clash between traditional notions of citizenship and contemporary society. These developments create problems for a national citizenship based on liberal democratic ideals. Within the context of liberal democracies, which can be defined as made up of a self-determining, self-governing collective that guarantees human rights and civil liberties for all people, Seyla Benhabib (2002) criticises the lack of rights given to foreigners by bringing attention to the “paradox of democratic legitimacy” (449). She claims that the “self-determining collectivity should undertake to bind its will by a series of precommitments … usually referred to as ‘human rights’” and that these “are then negotiated upon [the] terrain flanked by human rights on the one hand and sovereignty assertions on the other” (Benhabib 2002: 453, our emphasis). In other words, the will of the sovereign inherently includes pre-commitments to human rights in liberal democracies. However, the nature of the sovereign may also “renego[tiate] and reinter[pret]” the prepolitical understanding of rights. In the case of Germany, this often means challenging or outright circumventing fundamental rights, such as the right to vote or be elected (Benhabib 2002: 451).
Citizenship in Germany
Until recently, it was possible to attain citizenship and its accompanied rights in Germany through the jus sanguinis (right of blood) principle, meaning that citizenship can be attained by having at least one parent who has German citizenship (Nationality Act, Section 3(1)). This regime was based on an ethnic conception of the nation, meaning that the nation-state and its people have descended from a particular ethnic group and therefore share a particular language, culture, customs, heritage, “race”, etc.
The Nationality Law, which had been in place since 1913, was replaced in 1999 by the Nationality Act and now leans a little more towards the jus soli (right of the soil) conception of the nation, meaning that citizenship can also be recognised by birth in the territory of the state in question. The new provisions allow those born in Germany on or after 1 January 2000 to foreign parents to obtain citizenship if at least one parent has permanent residence rights in Germany or has been legally residing in Germany for eight years (Nationality Act: Section 4(3)). Citizenship in Germany therefore includes both jus sanguinis and jus soli principles.
As in most countries, citizenship in Germany is linked to exclusive rights. The German Constitution (Grundgesetz) distinguishes between rights accorded to exclusively German citizens and rights accorded to all peoples. One of these exclusive rights is the right to vote and the nature of urban citizenship cancels out the exclusivity of rights to certain nationals.
Urban citizenship reshapes who belongs to a certain area and thus who is accorded rights, which goes directly against jus sanguinis and jus soli principles. Instead of making the acquisition of rights dependent on birth to a certain national or birth in a certain territory, urban citizenship holds that belonging and rights should be based on residence.
Significance of Voting
In the simplest terms, elections give people a choice, empowering them to choose between different candidates or laws. Elections are falsely believed to be synonymous with liberal democratic systems, but giving a people a choice between laws or political candidates does not ensure the existence of such a system. Both historical and current regimes show that authoritarian states and elections are not mutually exclusive. Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq, for instance, also exemplifies this unfortunate model. Elections are not only a process through which voters are represented in parliaments or councils. Elections can also serve as an instrument to measure the satisfaction of the demos with those governing, determine who governs and where political actors stand on key issues and represent public opinion and the will of voters as well as reflect social and political conflicts (Nohlen 2004: 30f.). Elections are the most important channel for institutionalised participation in politics (Nohlen 2004: 35). We can summarise the functions of elections with the following terms: representation, legitimation, control and integration.
Integration has a symbolic dimension that should not be underestimated. Although elections are not the only manner in which one can participate in civic life, they are the sole opportunity for all voting-eligible groups in society (regardless of their heterogeneity) to unite and to be able to make their political will heard at the same time on a specific issue or in response to certain candidates. Thus, elections shape a society’s inclusivity by determining who has the right to vote. Groups that are eligible to vote generally have one thing in common throughout the world: national citizenship.
Voting Rights in Germany
The right to vote is a standard part of the established human rights order. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through chosen representatives” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 21(1)). While the phrase “his country” could be seen as connecting citizenship and voting rights, we focus here on the right to take part in government and challenge subjective ideas about belonging in a later section.
The right to vote implies active and passive voting, i.e., the ability to vote and stand in elections. These rights were shaped in the 19th and 20th centuries in most industrial countries and the development of suffrage is a fluid and ongoing process that is still evolving. The beginning of suffrage led to the democratisation of nation-states – at the base of this democratisation lie decentralisation and the giving up of power.
Voting rights are elastic and ever-changing. This is also the case in Germany. Before voting rights were given to all citizens at least 16 or 18 years of age, suffrage was given exclusively to men and weighted according to class, with higher class votes weighing more in the German Reich’s Prussia. Later, suffrage was extended to all men, then in 1919 to women. Since then, the voting age has been lowered several times. In light of increased mobility and migration, it is now time to expand voting rights again.
Suffrage for non-Germans
When dealing with the subject of suffrage in Germany, one must consider the distinct levels characterised by the political structure: (1) federal, (2) state (Länder) and (3) local. Laws with far-ranging consequences in the distinct spheres of life for all those residing in Germany are enacted on the federal and state levels. For example, education reform, a state matter, was voted upon in a public referendum in the state of Hamburg in 2010.
Extending voting rights to those 16 years of age in the local or state elections as well as allowing EU citizens to vote in local elections are a first step toward a more democratic society in Germany. However, many important decisions taken on the national level are still only open to German citizens at least 18 years of age.
Before EU citizens were given the right to vote in Germany on the local level, efforts were made by the states Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg to open up suffrage on the local level to non-German residents. In 1989 Schleswig-Holstein introduced a reform of the state’s constitution to provide voting rights to citizens of Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. However, this effort was overturned in 1990. In its judgment, the Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) ruled that this state law was unconstitutional, as only German citizens (“the people” or Staatsvolk) can be represented on local and state levels. In addition, the Court claimed that local voting rights for foreigners would compromise German citizenship and a decoupling of the right to vote from national citizenship would take away the democratic character of citizenship: “if it is not necessary to be a citizen in order to be a voter, the institution of citizenship will be devalued for Germans” (BVerfGE 83, 37, II (1)(c), 31 October 1990).
In 1989 a further effort was made for alien suffrage for district assemblies (Bezirksversammlungen) in the state of Hamburg. The FCC also found this law unconstitutional, using argumentation similar to the earlier case.
The FCC’s judgments show that there is no distinction between those empowered to vote (Wahlvolk) and “the people” (Staatsvolk). These two overlap, providing a clear linkage between suffrage and citizenship. “The Court relied upon a concept of popular sovereignty as the basis for political legitimacy, limited by reference to the holding of national citizenship. It explicitly rejected the principle of affected interests as the basis for a claim to political equality and access to the franchise” (Shaw 2007: 292).
Looking back at this judgment, the FCC’s interpretation of “the people” served as a “swan song to a vanishing ideology of nationhood” (Benhabib 2004: 207) because it was partly overturned by the 1992 Constitutional amendment in response to EU Directive 94/80/EC. Art. 28(1) was amended to extend local active and passive suffrage to all citizens of EU member states.
Efforts by several German Länder to extend suffrage to foreigners were rejected using arguments such as the unconstitutional nature of the state reforms or the devaluation of German citizenship, yet the Maastricht Treaty brought with it local suffrage for all EU citizens residing in Germany. On one hand, this further democratised German electoral law. On the other hand, it created three classes of citizenship – German, EU and third-country nationals – further including EU citizens (a new “we”) and excluding TCNs (a clearer “other”). The constitutional court claimed that local suffrage for foreigners compromised the democratic character of German citizenship, but apparently only meant foreigners from outside the EU.
The Right to Vote in Numbers
To illustrate the problem of voting rights in numbers, 6 million people of voting age reside in Germany without German citizenship. This means that 9% of voting age residents do not have the right to vote in federal elections. On the state level, for example, the percentage of disenfranchised voters is 14% in Berlin and Hamburg, 13% in Hesse, 12% Bremen and Baden-Württemberg and 11% in North Rhine-Westphalia. The proportion of non-eligible voters on the local level is also high: 16% in Frankfurt (Main), 15% in Munich, 13% in Cologne, 12% Düsseldorf and 12% in Duisburg. The number of those disenfranchised is therefore substantial.
|State-level Voting||Local-level Voting|
|State||Eligible German citizens||Foreigners of voting age
|Disenfranchised(in %)||City||Eligible German citizens||TCNs of voting age||Eligible EU citizens||Dis-enfranchised
|Lower Saxony||6,083,408||405,289||6.25||Frankfurt (Main)||458,062||96,011||59,697||15.64|
|Mecklenburg-West Pomerania||1,380,066||26,752||1.90||Halle (Saale)*||197,241||6,694||1,814||3.25|
Table 1: Eligible vs. Disenfranchised residents on state and local level (calculations based on data acquired from the Federal Statistical Office, 2011)
Urban Citizenship as Tool for Delinking the Right to Vote from National Citizenship
We have covered traditional notions of citizenship, where national citizenship is linked to a nation-state. Other types of citizenship exist, some more far-reaching than national citizenship and others narrower. Urban citizenship is the most adequate model to delink voting rights from national citizenship status because it allows people to belong simply through residence in a local space (detached from belonging to a nation-state) and also accords these people fundamental rights at all levels of government, not just the local level. In addition, unlike other types of citizenship, which are more normative than pragmatic, urban citizenship is a practical concept, which could be put into place if the political will exists.
Voting rights are linked to national citizenship in most liberal democratic societies. This leads to the disenfranchisement of resident non-citizens and also contributes to democratic deficiency as many residents, in Germany in this case, cannot participate in decisions or select representatives affecting their lives.
Urban citizenship is a concept that conceives of belonging and rights in a different way. It holds that people belong to an urban or local space simply through residency and that rights should be decoupled from status. If one belongs, then one should be able to make decisions upon and shape one’s urban community.
There are countless reasons why EU citizens and TCNs who reside in so-called urban spaces should be able to vote at all levels of government. Many foreigners already “engage in practices that are the same as those of formally defined citizens in the routines of daily life” (Sassen 2002: 6). Sassen argues that the carrying out of these day-to-day tasks (e.g., paying taxes, taking public transport, using and shaping public social spaces) serves as an “informal social contract” between residents and their community (Sassen 2002: 6), which then creates a right to membership and the rights that come with it, i.e., traditional citizenship rights. These “denizens” or de facto citizens perform the same duties as national citizens, yet they are not accorded the same rights. This system is highly discriminatory and undemocratic and goes against fundamental human rights notions.
In order to counteract some of this, academics and policy-makers have made arguments for voting rights for TCNs, but only on the local level. We argue that the feeling of belonging that people have in an urban context and the carrying out of national citizenship duties implies decision-making power at all levels of government. One could argue now that urban citizenship brings forth valid arguments for local voting rights, but that extending these to the national level would be going too far. Decisions taken at the state and national levels greatly affect daily urban life: their effects (without the voice of non-national citizen residents being taken into account) trickle down to the local level and affect every member of society. For example, those elected at the national level make decisions on immigration and asylum policies, health and taxes. Conceiving of residents as urban citizens and institutionalising this way of thinking of citizens would immediately qualify residents for voting rights on the local, state and national levels. This would satisfy the principles of democratic participation and institutionally recognise belonging. It would allow for public institutions to reflect society at large and would be an indicator of a more inclusive Germany.
If we think of urban citizenship – the amorphous concept covered in literature on citizenship and urban studies – as a model for reshaping who belongs and who has a right to a political voice, then we can decouple traditional citizenship rights from the right to vote.
In addition, belonging, considered an essential part of citizenship and a reason for why political citizenship rights are usually accorded exclusively to nationals, is subjective. One could argue that the Westphalian nation-state still exists and has influence. However, globalisation and transnational migration have led to denationalised or transnationalised identities and political affiliations. We believe that the urban citizenship model helps us link belonging to a local space related to the carrying out of everyday routines and tasks and the relationship one has with his or her community.
If we think of urban citizenship – the amorphous concept covered in literature on citizenship and urban studies – as a model for reshaping who belongs and who has a right to a political voice, then we can decouple traditional citizenship rights from the right to vote. Those who reside should have a say in political decisions and in providing them this right, we would take one step toward eliminating the democratic deficiency apparent in Germany. Such a change would also address the paradox of liberal democracies because axiomatic human rights would no longer be a matter of negotiation.
There is a strong argument in claiming that political inclusion “strengthens in tandem with the degree of an individual’s psychological or material investment in a given society.… Alienation often springs from the failure of the political system to deliver the desired symbolic and material outcomes to immigrants” and their children (Messina 2007: 201). Urban citizenship is not just a model that would greatly improve liberal democratic systems and accord fundamental rights to excluded individuals. It is a model that would signal that migrants and non-Germans are genuinely part of German society. They have lived here and they continue to live here: urban citizenship acknowledges their past and future contributions to shape their communities.
Voting allows acknowledged members of society to institutionally shape the spaces to which they belong. Our liberal democratic society currently decides upon issues without bringing all stakeholders into the conversation. Rights – what they mean and who has them – are not static. Germany’s citizenship and suffrage rights have evolved over time and urgently require new changes. We advocate the further development of voting rights and believe that the urban citizenship model, which links residency to belonging and rights, can help us institutionalise the right to vote for all foreigners at all levels of government.
Urban citizenship is our preferred solution to the rights deficit in Germany because it shapes belonging based on residence in a local space (instead of on legal affiliation and assimilation to a nation-state), yet allows residents to be accorded rights on all levels of government – local, state and national levels – instead of only on the local level. Other types of citizenship (e.g., to a certain neighbourhood) guarantee belonging, yet not rights on levels other than the local level. More far-reaching types of citizenship (e.g., global citizenship) serve more as a normative notion, rather than a tool that can be put into practice and actually provide people rights.
The delinking that we call for has several effects. The German liberal democratic system would be strengthened by according migrants and non-German citizens the right to vote. This would in turn force politicians and political parties to bring the needs and wants of these currently excluded groups to their political agendas. Representatives are – or should be – a mirror of society. Urban citizenship would give TCNs and EU citizens a voice, an opportunity to participate in the political system that directly affects their lives.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this call for change is made within a system in which policy-makers are still bound to nation-state ideals. The separation of national citizenship from voting may threaten national citizenship. We must ask ourselves what the repercussions of this compromise are and whether the sanctity of national citizenship is more or less important than democratic and ethical principles of how to organise a polity.
Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland (GG)).
Benhabib, S. (2002), Transformations of citizenship: The case of contemporary Europe. Government and Opposition 37(4): 439-465.
Benhabib, S. (2004), The rights of others, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Brubaker, W. R. (1990), Immigration, citizenship, and the nation-state in France and Germany: A comparative historical analysis, International Sociology, 5(4): 379-407.
German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht), BVerfGE 83, 37, 31 October 1990.
German Nationality Law of 1913 (Reichs- und Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz (RuStAG)).
German Nationality Act (StaatsangehörigkeitsgesetzStAG)).
Hammar, T. (1990), Democracy and the nation state: Aliens, denizens, and citizens in a world of international migration, Brookfield, Vermont, Gower Publishing Company.
Marshall, T. H. (2009), Citizenship and social class. In: Manza, J. & Sauder, M. (ed.) Inequality and Society: Social Science Perspectives on Social Stratification. New York, W. W. Norton & Company. 148-154.
Messina, A. M. (2007), The logics and politics of post-WWII migration to Western Europe, New York, Cambridge University Press.
Nohlen, D. (2004), Wahlrecht und Parteiensysteme, Stuttgart, UTB.
Sassen, S. (2002), The repositioning of citizenship: Emergent subjects and spaces for politics. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 46, 4-25.
Shaw, J. (2007), The transformation of citizenship in the European Union: Electoral rights and the restructuring of political space, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III).
 TCNs are all those who do not have citizenship of a European Union member state. For the purposes this essay, discussion of TCNs also includes stateless persons.
Reasons for why naturalisation is not an option are that (a) many people are forced to give up their other nationality when becoming German. Forcing individuals to have a (legal) allegiance to only one state is morally questionable; (b) the benchmark for gaining eligibility for naturalisation is too high (e.g., applicants cannot be receiving social benefits, length of residence); (c) integration tests require foreign nationals to bring more knowledge about the apparent “homogenous German society” to the table in order to become German is highly discriminatory; and (d) international mobility will continue to be a reality and those residing in Germany, even if temporarily (e.g., for work or study purposes), should be accorded rights traditionally linked to national citizenship status.
 Acquisition of citizenship is more extensive than this overview and includes naturalisation, adoption and expellees from the Nazi regime, amongst others.
 The authors use the term “non-German” in a legal sense.
 Art. 28(1) of the Constitution served as the basis for the unconstitutionality of the Land reform. This article determines that “the people” must have representation on state and local levels. This provision is linked with the Arts. 20(1) and (2) which determine governance should be carried out by “the people”. “The people” then refers to all German citizens, as stated in Art. 116(1) of the Constitution.
It is assumed that these individuals have not been disenfranchised of the right to vote by a court sentence.
 All non-German residents
It is assumed that these individuals have not been disenfranchised of the right to vote by a court sentence.
 All TCN residents
* Voting age set at 16
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