When Agency Challenges Structure: How Immigrants Trace a Path Towards Election to Local Government

By Shervin Ghaem-Maghami (University of Toronto Mississauga) and Vincent Z. Kuuire (University of Toronto Mississauga)

Running for political office is a demanding and complicated affair. Aspirants must navigate convoluted social and political structures in order to decide if they wish and feasibly can launch their candidacies. Further, they have an endless number of choices to make relating to the management of their campaigns: which issues to champion, which groups and segments of society to appeal to, how to shape the narrative about the issues confronting their electoral jurisdictions, and how to portray themselves as the right person to resolve those challenges, among many others.

Our exploration of these matters in a recent study, which centers in particular on the candidacies of immigrants seeking political office in local government, has led us to determine that while structural elements naturally exert a substantial influence, candidates still have considerable latitude in expressing agency through determining the character and public appeal of their campaigns and, in turn, have a direct and decisive impact on their potential electoral success.

The methodology informing our study is relatively under-utilized thus far in research that has been carried out in this area of inquiry. Using the scoping review approach, which begins with a systematic survey of a vast pool of possibly relevant literature and culminates in a comprehensive and organized summary of the findings, we conducted a data-driven meta-study of those factors that researchers have identified as holding the most sway for immigrant candidates’ electoral fortunes in a range of countries around the world. A broad array of more than 25,000 possibly-relevant publications was eventually narrowed down to forty four studies that responded directly to the following question: What factors influence the election of immigrants to political roles in local government?

Immigrant candidates are particularly compelling subjects for study because of the richness of the experiences that they are continually gaining as they integrate into their host societies, experiences that can inform the spirit and substance of their electoral campaigns. Newcomers often confront challenging socio-economic and political conditions even before arriving in their countries of destination, with these difficult circumstances tending to endure throughout the processes of resettlement and integration. For many, a sense of solidarity can be found in a thriving ethnocultural community in their host countries, offering an abundance of comfort through both social and material support. While this is not universally available to all aspiring immigrant candidates, many can benefit from these networks in local elections through the appeal of achieving greater descriptive representation—the extent to which politicians reflect the descriptive characteristics, e.g., ethnicity or gender, of their potential constituents—and garner the votes of co-immigrant and/or co-ethnic voter blocs.

Yet, this is only one of many possible factors that can bear effect on immigrant candidates’ chances in municipal elections. As we collected the data and categorized the findings of the forty four studies that we selected for inclusion in our review, a three-layered landscape naturally emerged before us upon which we could impose the fifty six unique factors, featuring: 1. Macro-level electoral structures and situational elements; 2. Meso-level immigrant group dynamics; and 3. Micro-level individual candidate characteristics. Of course, the use of such a spectrum is certainly not novel; our work draws upon and contributes to the rich history of conducting ‘macro-’, ‘meso-’, and ‘micro-’ level assessments in research in the prevalent discourses related to patterns and processes of both international migration and elections.

For the candidacies of newcomers aspiring to serve in positions in local government, the power of expressions of individual agency (e.g., by prioritizing local issues over simply pursuing the priorities of immigrant communities in their campaigns, deciding which party to represent, etc.) can help to overcome structures and barriers (e.g., the ineligibility of non-citizens to vote in elections, stigmatized perceptions of marginalized immigrant groups, etc.) is noteworthy. The corresponding sub-themes, together with an example of each, under the three primary categories include:

The path that immigrant candidates can trace towards successful election to positions in municipal government is uneven and beset with obstacles. Nevertheless, these hurdles are not insurmountable, and these same inhibiting systems can be reoriented in such a way that converts their intrinsic challenges into potential opportunities. For example, redirecting institutional investment into politics by prioritizing immigrants’ civic and social engagement, especially through their inclusion in the design and delivery of programs oriented to meet local needs, would result in better-engaged communities and community members. Further, as is already a common trend in many jurisdictions around the world, electoral systems merit continued scrutiny so that they can adhere more comprehensively to the principles of openness and fairness. In fact, many of the measures that are being explored within the general discourse on the strengthening of democracy, together with countless others that have already become established as law or policy, inherently favor the increased political inclusion of immigrants, which will inevitably lead to greater descriptive representation over time.

As immigrant-receiving countries are striving to reconcile the implications of increased ethno-cultural diversity with public demands to reinforce the vitality of vulnerable democratic systems, finding a model that balances the fostering of expressions of agency together with the reorienting of systems to promote inclusive political empowerment may prove to be critical for fortunes of immigrant candidates seeking election to local government.

Read the open access UAR article here.

Photo by Brett Mayson on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Shervin Ghaem-Maghami is a doctoral candidate in planning in the Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His research interests center on migration and integration, urban politics, municipal governance, public participation, and community-level collective decision-making.

Vincent Z. Kuuire is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment at the University of Toronto Mississauga and in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He is also the Canada Research Chair in Immigrant Well-Being and Global Health. His research focuses on migration, transnationalism and integration, health care access, environment, and health.