State urges foreign residents to vote

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Monday’s municipal and county elections in Norway are the only ones in which non-citizens can vote, as long as they have legal resident status. State election officials are making a special effort this year to encourage everyone with “immigrant backgrounds” to exercise their right to vote and participate in Norway’s democracy.

Campaign booths have been open for the past several weeks in town and cities around Norway, like here on Karl Johans Gate in Oslo. Election officials hope more immigrants will exercise their right to vote as well. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The Norwegian Directorate of Elections sent letters this week to all legal residents and immigrants who’ve held citizenship for less than 18 years. The goal is to boost voter turnout.

While all Norwegians eligible to vote were being sent digital text messages reminding them of the looming election, foreign-born residents and naturalized citizens received letters written in Norwegian on embossed paper with the royal seal, and signed by elections chief Bjørn Berg.

“By taking part in the election, you support democracy,” reads the letter from Berg.  “The political parties and candidates you vote for are of course up to you,What’s important is that you take part.”

‘Set a new record!’
The letter contends that voter turnout among immigrants is rising. “Contribute towards setting a new record!” urges Berg. Around 40 percent of eligible voters with immigrant background voted in the last local elections in 2015, much lower than the turnout by eligible native Norwegians that’s been known to be as high as 70-80 percent. While that’s been sliding in recent years, election authorities want to boost both it and voter turnout among immigrants.

All eligible voters in Norway have already received their so-called valgkort (literally, election card) with practical information about the upcoming elections. The letter also provides information about what sort of identification is needed at polling places. “Use the chance to influence how policy is shaped in Norway,” concluded Berg. “Exercise your right to vote!”

For more official information on the upcoming election in English, click here (external link to the election directorate’s own website).

Local elections in Norway are especially important because Norwegian municipalities are responsible for running schools, nursing homes, transport systems and a long list of welfare and other services from day care to elder care and emergency medical help. In Oslo, proposed consolidation of several large hospitals has stirred huge debate. Even though hospitals are state-run, local government officials can have influence at the state level.

Major local campaign issues this year have been fired up over opposition to road tolls (bompenger) and property tax, while debate has also been flying over programs aimed at halting climate change and how many migrants and refugees should be allowed in Norway. The state government has carried out restrictive immigration policy of late, for example, while calls have gone out in some small towns and cities (most recently in Bergen) for more immigrants, on the basis of both humanitarian reasons and a need for workers and new residents in depopulated areas.

Norway’s conservative government coalition, meanwhile, announced this week that it will further cut the maximum tax rate local governments can set for collecting property tax, to 4 percent of assessed valuation. Local governments are otherwise allowed to impose unpopular property tax if they feel more revenues are needed, with many simply raising assessed values when the state earlier cut maximum tax rates, from 7- to 5 percent.

The Labour Party has been the most eager to impose property tax in towns and cities where it has a majority. Labour’s city government leader in Oslo, Raymond Johansen, called the state’s latest cap a “fantastically arrogant” assault on local democracy, while some of his party colleagues claimed it could force cuts in welfare services. Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the conservative Progress Party scoffed at such accusations, noting that Norway’s local governments enjoy a strong economy and operate mostly with budget surpluses.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund