hand laying down a ballot paper in the ballot box

Prejudice among voters may lead to underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in politics

For a democracy to function as well as possible, it is necessary for the politicians who govern the country to reflect the population. Ethnic minorities are often underrepresented in many countries, including the Nordic countries. This can create problems. A new study seeks to understand why there are so few people with foreign backgrounds in positions of political power.

The principle of descriptive representation suggests that ethnic minorities should have representation in parliament (e.g., the Swedish Riksdag) that reflects their share of the population. Unfortunately, reality does not always align with this ideal.

Underrepresentation can be problematic as it may result in certain views not being heard, minorities feeling alienated from politics, and political reforms that benefit immigrant groups being neglected. Moreover, underrepresentation may signal that society does not support ethnic diversity, which in turn may exacerbate the problems.

Magnus Carlsson, an associate professor of economics at Linnaeus University, has conducted an extensive study together with two research colleagues in Norway, examining the mechanisms behind the nomination process for party lists. He explains:

“In many electoral systems, including Sweden’s, you have to be listed on a party’s ballot paper to receive votes from the electorate and be elected and represented in the parliament. Since ethnic minorities are underrepresented on party ballot papers, it raises the question of why this is.”

Not a lack of available candidates

“One possible explanation is that there are too few available individuals among ethnic minorities (i.e., supply-side problems). There may be barriers that make ethnic minorities less inclined to run for political positions due to individual lack of resources or low socioeconomic status. Demographic factors can also come into play, such as differences in educational level, age, and gender. However, two recent Swedish studies show that immigrants are as ambitious and interested in running for political positions as the majority population. This provides no support for the notion that a lack of available candidates can explain the underrepresentation on party ballot papers”, says Magnus Carlsson.

“Instead, the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities may be due to factors on the demand side. There may be differential treatment of minority candidates that prevents them from being listed on party ballot papers. In many electoral systems, including the Nordic countries, local party ‘gatekeepers’ play a crucial role in approving candidates to be listed on the ballot paper. Previous research has shown that differential treatment of minority candidates may occur in this process.”


The results of the study suggest that ethnic bias among voters is a more important issue to address than bias among the party elite, when it comes to reducing underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in politics.

Magnus Carlsson

But why would those who pick the candidates not include minority candidates on the party’s ballot paper?

“One possibility is that they are biased against ethnic minorities and therefore don’t consider them suitable as politicians,” says Magnus Carlsson. “Such bias may be based on stereotypes, racism, or the belief that minority candidates have inferior political abilities. Alternatively, those who pick the candidates may base their choices on what they believe the voters think, for strategic reasons. Politicians may believe that voters are biased, or that they wouldn’t vote for a list with ethnic diversity (assuming voters are biased or believing that minority candidates perform poorly as politicians). So those who pick the candidates may refrain from including ethnic minority candidates on the party’s ballot paper due to their own prejudices or because they believe the voters wouldn’t prefer it.”

Experiment with real local politicians

“In our study, we wanted to investigate whether prejudice is a factor in the process by which parties select candidates for their ballot papers. We conducted an experiment with 1149 real local politicians in Norway. The politicians were asked to evaluate profiles (similar to CVs) of fictional candidates who could potentially be included on the party’s ballot paper.
To measure ethnic prejudice, we compared the politicians’ evaluations of profiles where we randomly used either a common Norwegian name or a name belonging to an ethnic minority group. We also conducted an experiment among voters to examine whether the politicians’ potential prejudices correspond to those of the voters.”

“Somewhat surprisingly, we found that ethnic minority candidates were ranked higher than majority candidates. Our analysis indicates that this result is not driven by strategic considerations but rather by normative and psychological factors at the individual level – politicians who express a strong motivation to appear non-prejudiced rank ethnic minority candidates higher.”

The results of the study suggest that ethnic bias among voters is a more important issue to address than bias among the party elite, when it comes to reducing underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in politics. It was found that a significant portion of the electorate, especially those who vote for right-wing parties, had reservations about voting for a party list with many ethnic minority candidates. This could influence politicians’ decisions to promote more diversity on the party list, even if they themselves prefer it. This doesn’t mean that prejudice among ‘gatekeepers’ is irrelevant, but rather that there are other factors that may be more crucial to the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in politics.

“It’s important to note that the results of the study are most relevant to countries with electoral systems and nomination processes similar to Norway’s. It’s reasonable to assume that the results can primarily be generalised to countries with similar majority and minority populations as in Norway, where the presence of minorities in the electorate is relatively recent. Although Sweden and Norway are similar in many ways, there are also differences between the countries that may affect the generalisability of the results.”

The study is presented in the article “Are Politicians Biased against Ethnic Minority Candidates? Experimental Evidence from Norway”, accepted for publication in the Journal of Politics.


Magnus Carlsson, Linnaeus University
Henning Finseraas, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Arnfinn Haagensen Midtbøen, University of Oslo


Magnus Carlsson
Mobile phone: +46 (0)70-974 31 46, Email: magnus.carlsson@lnu.se