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15% of adults in Catalonia are not allowed to vote on February 14

Suffrage depends on country of citizenship, not residence, with few exceptions


31 January 2021 08:47 AM


Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

There are around 6.2 million people over the age of 18 who live in Catalonia, of which only 5.3 million are called to the polls on February 14.

To illustrate this situation, Catalan News spoke to two Uruguayans who live in Barcelona: Santi Carbajal, an SEO Manager for ShBarcelona who moved to the Catalan capital 18 years ago, and Manuela Camarero, an EAE Business School student who arrived barely four months ago. 

But of these two, it is Manuela, the person who has lived there the least, who can vote in the Catalan election in two weeks’ time. Manuela happens to also be a Spanish citizen, while Santi, despite having applied for nationality back in 2014, is yet to receive a response from Spain’s justice ministry. 

“It’s really frustrating. I quite enjoy politics and would like to vote but I can’t,” Santi laments. “At the end of the day, it makes you feel like a second-class citizen.”

Citizenship and suffrage

As in many other countries, voting rights in Catalonia and the rest of Spain, are contingent upon one’s country of citizenship. This means that around 15% of Catalonia’s adult population—slightly under a million people—cannot elect the representatives that will make policies that, as residents, workers, and taxpayers, will intimately affect them. 

There are some slight exceptions to this rule, although in practice few of these people end up exercising their right to vote. Residents from other EU countries—including dual Uruguayan-Italian citizen Santi—are allowed to vote in municipal and EU elections

Spain also allows residents from a handful of countries it has established bilateral voting agreements with, such as Colombia or Norway, to cast their ballots in local elections too. But only Spanish citizens can vote in Spanish and Catalan elections. 

According to Karlos Castilla, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Rights and an SOS Racisme board member, suffrage laws do not reflect the reality of modern-day diverse societies. In a globalized world in which it is not uncommon for people to migrate for various reasons and to establish their lives away from their country’s of origin, current voting laws are obsolete, Castilla argues.  

“What should matter most is where your life takes place, which is where political decisions will affect you,” Castilla maintains, especially as becoming a Spanish national—and therefore part of the electorate—is often a long and burdensome process.

How to become Spanish

Being born in Spain does not automatically make you a citizen, who of course, as an adult, will then be allowed to vote. 

The most common way of becoming a Spanish national is by having at least one Spanish parent, but for a while, people like Manuela were able to become citizens too because their grandparents had left the country in exile and their parents would have otherwise been born in Spain if this hadn’t been the case. 

Other people who have lived in Spain for the required period of time, which varies depending on their country of origin, and pass a Spanish language test as well as another on culture and society, can initiate the lengthy process of becoming a citizen. 


  • "What should matter most is where your life takes place, which is where political decisions will affect you"

    Karlos Castilla · Researcher and SOS Racisme board member

“In my case, as someone from Latin America, I have the right to become a Spanish citizen after living in the country for two years,” says Castilla. “But it’s been 9 years and I still don’t have it.”

Santi, who seven years later still hopes to be granted citizenship, believes this has a direct impact on policies that are pursued by those who are in power. “Because your opinion doesn’t matter, politicians will not make policies in an attempt to get your vote,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense for a political party to try to get my vote if I cannot vote.”

Not at the top of the political agenda

Granting residents the right to vote is not a top priority for parties heading into the election. Proposals range from far-left forces arguing that all residents should be able to vote in all elections, to some saying residents regardless of where they are from should be allowed to vote in local elections and that the process of obtaining Spanish citizenship should be sped up, while other parties believe that voting rights are fine the way they are. 

Far-right Vox, however, which is set to make a historic first-time entry into the Catalan parliament on the 14th, advocates for a more hardline approach to migration and proposes making it even harder for foreigners to become citizens. 

Who are the demos?

“Spanish society has long been diverse, even amongst those who are citizens because they are of Spanish origin,” says Castilla, adding that conceptions of a specific so-called “Spanish phenotype” are “absurd”. 

This issue is not unique to Catalonia or to Spain, but it is at the heart of questions about what it means to be from somewhere, how this has changed over time, and who is allowed to fully participate in shaping the community they live in. 

And when we talk about the demos in democracy, who are these people that should be able to have a say in politics? Are our current voting laws the most equitable way of deciding who should have power in society?


  • Voters casting their ballots in the town hall of Alcanar, on April 28, 2019 (by Jordi Marsal)

  • Voters casting their ballots in the town hall of Alcanar, on April 28, 2019 (by Jordi Marsal)