Votes shift when refugees move in

In the vast majority of Danish municipalities, voters will shift to the right when the number of refugees increases. Anti-immigration parties will gain a much greater share of the vote. However, the trend does not apply in the big cities. The researchers explain the rural and urban divide with the difference in how immigrants and native residents interact in small and large cities.

29.05.2019 | MIA ULVGRAVEN

When refugees move in, votes will shift.

According to a study from Aarhus BSS, more refugees in a community leads to a significant political shift to the right among voters in the majority of Danish municipalities. The study has been published in the recognised journal The Review of Economic Studies.

Apart from in the five per cent largest municipalities - centred around the major Danish cities of Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense, Aalborg and Esbjerg - the research results are clear: When more refugees move to a municipality, it will lead to significantly more votes for the two anti-immigration parties, i.e. the Danish People's Party and the former Progress Party. These were the dominant anti-immigration parties during the time in which the study was conducted. The study shows that every time the proportion of refugees in a municipality increases by 1 percentage point in between two general elections, the vote share of the two anti-immigration parties increases by 1.3 percentage points on average. The vote share of other centre-right parties also increases, while it decreases for centre-left parties.

In the Danish municipality of Stenløse, the share of refugees in the population increased by 0.21 percentage points between the general elections of 1990 and 1994, while the Progress Party increased their share of the vote by 0.4 percentage points. However, the Liberal Party and the Conservative People’s Party did even better and increased their share of the vote by 8.2 percentage points, while the centre-left parties lost an even greater share of the vote; a total of 4 percentage points.

“The voters reacted directly to the refugees’ presence by voting further to the right than at the previous election,” says Professor Anna Piil Damm from the Department of Economics and Business Economics at Aarhus BSS.

She has carried out the study “Refugee Migration and Electoral Outcomes” together with Professor Christian Dustmann from University College London and Kristine Vasiljeva, a senior analyst at BL, who worked at the Department of Economics and Business Economics at the time the study was conducted.

The study is based on data from 1986 to 1998. The way in which refugees were allocated in Denmark during these exact years allows the researches to measure with great certainty how the increase in refugees has affected the election results.

“Our research method is very robust, and all else being equal, today we will also see how voters in the small cities will shift towards anti-immigrations parties in places that have seen an influx of refugees. We won’t necessarily see a shift to the right, since today the Social Democratic Party is also supporting a strict immigration policy. If the voters believe the Social Democratic Party’s election promises of leading a strict immigration policy just as the Danish People's Party and the Liberal Party, the placement of refugees won’t lead to a shift to the right in the small municipalities at this general election. However, we will still see an increased support for anti-immigration parties on both sides of the political spectrum,” says Damm.

No shift to the right in the big cities

The researchers have taken a separate look at the five per cent largest municipalities to see if there is a difference between rural and urban areas. This is indeed the case. In the largest cities, it will have no effect on voter support for the anti-immigration parties that more refugees have taken up residence in the municipality since the previous election.

According to the researchers, the divide between rural and urban municipalities is easy to explain. However, even they were surprised by the extent to which the results break new ground compared to previous research.

“Most studies conducted so far conclude there is a link between more refugees taking up residence in a municipality and an increase in votes for anti-immigration parties. However, a recent study conducted in Hamburg has just demonstrated the opposite. The reason is, all else being equal, that Hamburg is a big city. In addition, the other studies are based on national average election results. By going one step further, we’ve been able to identify a significant difference between rural and urban areas, which is very interesting,” says Damm.

"The fact that big city voters aren’t sceptical towards immigration should make politicians consider dropping the idea of allocating refugees evenly across the country"

Anna Piil Damm - Professor, Department of Economics and Business Economics, Aarhus BSS

Differences in forms of social interaction explain rural and urban divide

The researchers find the explanation for the divide in very widespread theories on prejudice and group threats. Basically, immigrants and native residents behave in one way towards one another in big cities and in another way in villages and small provincial towns.

“In big cities, it’s common for Danes to have immigrants as friends and work colleagues. They meet immigrants in spheres where you work towards a common goal. According to recognised theory, this reduces prejudice. The opposite is true in rural areas where people are far less likely to have immigrants as friends or work colleagues,” says Damm.

The researchers also calculated how likely people are to meet refugees in their neighbourhood of residence. The likelihood is significantly greater in the 95 per cent small municipalities than in the five per cent largest. According to existing theory, this may also explain the differences in attitudes in rural and urban municipalities.

“Living next door to refugees may be perceived as an involuntary meeting with immigrants and may lead to conflict and a struggle for limited resources. If your children attend a school with many refugee children, and if you see that these children require extra resources, it may affect your attitude,” says Damm.

“Basically, how we respond to refugees and immigrants depends on the conditions in which we meet them. When we meet immigrants in the workplace and they are similar to us in socio-economic terms and share our goals, we are positively affected by the encounter. According to recent research on resource conflicts, the encounter affects us negatively if these conditions aren’t met,” says Damm.

“This means that anti-immigration parties will enjoy the strongest support in the rural areas because refugees are more visible and voters don’t have a personal relationship with them.”

Professor: Rural and urban divide must be factored into refugee immigration policy

The new study is based on data from three electoral cycles from 1986 to 1998, but according to Damm, the rural and urban divide also applies today. This is supported by more recent election results from the United Kingdom, Finland and Belgium.

In the United Kingdom, the anti-immigration party UKIP had significantly lower support in the London area than in the countryside, both in the 2015 British general election and the 2014 European election. Similarly, anti-immigration parties in Belgium and Finland saw the lowest support in Brussels and Helsinki at the 2014 and 2015 elections.

“The fact that big city voters aren’t sceptical towards immigration should make politicians consider dropping the idea of allocating refugees evenly across the country,” Damm suggests.

The Danish Integration Act includes rules about residence and quota allocation of refugees in Danish municipalities. In view of integration, one of the purposes of quota allocation is to distribute refugees evenly across the country, according to the Danish Immigration Service’s website.

“Our research indicates that it’s possible to prevent negative attitudes towards refugees by rethinking the residential placement and settling more refugees in large cities. This is true in Denmark as well as at EU level,” says Damm.

However, she emphasises that politicians need to take a lot of other factors into account before they change the law, especially the refugees’ education and employment opportunities. 

Unemployment, crime and income affect the shift to the right

In the study, Damm and her research colleagues controlled for a number of other factors than refugee influx, which could have caused a political shift to the right in a municipality. They also explored how different socio-economic characteristics affect how voters react to refugees.

It turns out that the previous population composition of a municipality is crucial for the extent of the political shift to the right that follows when more refugees move in.

“We see that the support for anti-immigration parties is most significant in municipalities that even before the arrival of new refugees were characterised by high unemployment and crime rates and a large proportion of refugees on welfare. In fact, the voters’ reaction is also particularly strong in municipalities with a large proportion of wealthy citizens,” says Damm.

Greater shift to the right in municipal elections than general elections

The study ”Refugee Migration and Electoral Outcomes” covers election results from general as well as municipal elections. However, the researchers draw particular attention to the general elections. Here, the results most clearly express how existing voters have changed their vote compared to previous elections. The results of the municipal elections are characterised by new voters and new parties.

In municipal elections, the shift to the right seems more significant than in general elections. The vote shares of the Danish People's Party and the Progress Party increase by 2.3 percentage points on average each time the share of refugees in the population increases by 1 percentage point.

“This may very well be caused by two things. Firstly, the Danish People's Party and the Progress Party entered the stage in many municipalities as completely new parties in the 1980s and 90s. Our data shows that the two parties ran in the very same municipalities that saw a large influx of refugees. So with a 0 per cent-of-the-vote starting point, the increase is bound to be relatively large in these places. Secondly, we can also see that new voters have been mobilised in the municipal elections. At the general elections, the existing voters were the ones who voted differently than at the previous election,” says Damm.

PHOTO: Colourbox

13 years of Danish immigration policy offers researchers unique opportunities    

The study ‘Refugee Migration and Electoral Outcomes’, which has been published in the recognised journal The Review of Economic Studies, is based on unique Danish data from 1986 to 1998. In this exact period, newly arrived refugees in Denmark were distributed according to specific principles. These principles have enabled the researchers to identify a causal effect.

“The immigration policy of this period has allowed us to conduct the first international study that demonstrates the causal effect of a local influx of refugees on the distribution of votes for different political parties,” says Professor Anna Piil Damm.

Other studies have demonstrated a connection between an influx of refugees and election results, but they have not been able to say with certainty how these aspects are interrelated. In the new study from Aarhus BSS, the researchers are able to say with certainty that refugees have caused voters to shift to the right side of the political spectrum. This means that we are dealing with causality.

The Danish Refugee Council in charge of residential placement of refugees

Between 1986 and 1998, the Danish Refugee Council was in charge of the residential allocation of newly-arrived refugees. This means that neither government agencies and institutions nor the refugees themselves decided where they were to live.

“It’s crucial for the certainty of our research results that the municipalities had no influence on the number of refugees they received during the time in which the study was conducted. And that the individual refugee had no influence on where they were going to live. We don’t have the same problem as a lot of other studies, which is that the refugees who are the hardest to integrate on the labour market will take up residence in places that have the most favourable attitude towards refugees.”

The Danish Refugee Council had to follow the principle of evenly allocating refugees according to the population of the municipalities. The most populated municipalities had to receive the most refugees. The even allocation was to happen over a five-year period. In one year, one municipality might receive a lot of refugees, while a neighbouring municipality would not receive any. This allowed the researchers to spot the difference between municipalities that received refugees before an election and those who did not receive refugees until after the election. 

“We can see that a shift to the right occurs in one municipality where the population of refugees has increased, while the election result for anti-immigration parties is largely unchanged or weakened in a neighbouring municipality where no new refugees have arrived since the latest election,” says Damm.

For example, the island of Samsø did not receive a single allocated refugee between 1990 and 1994. Here, the Progress Party’s share of vote decreased by 1 percentage point.

Facts about the study

The study is based on the years 1986 to 1998.

During the period covered by the study, Denmark consisted of 275 municipalities. In the study, these were split into two groups: the five per cent largest municipalities (i.e. 13 municipalities, where almost a third of the population lived in 1986) and the remaining 95 per cent smaller municipalities. (The group of smaller municipalities is referred to as “rural”, and the small group of large municipalities is referred to as “urban”. In this period, the 13 largest municipalities were Copenhagen, Frederiksberg, Gentofte, Gladsaxe, Helsingør, Odense, Esbjerg, Horsens, Kolding, Herning, Randers, Aarhus and Aalborg.)

The study comprises election results from three general elections and three municipal elections.

76,673 people were granted refugee status in Denmark and were allocated a municipality of residence by the Danish Refugee Council in the period covered by the study (1986-1998).

The Rockwool Foundation has contributed by making administrative registry data available to the researchers.

The entire study “Refugee Migration and Electoral Outcomes” is available in its full length in The Review of Economic Studies: