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Giving the Newest New Yorkers the Vote

Debate about proposed federal immigration policy -- and a growing mobilization by immigrants and their allies -- has brought immigrants center stage in American politics. Evolving relations between immigrants and the native born are, in many respects, remaking America and what it means to be American.

These changes are also reshaping New York. To reflect that, a bill currently in the City Council aims to strengthen immigrant political power. The Voting Rights Restoration Act (also known as Intro 245) would grant voting rights to legal immigrants who have resided in New York City for at least six months to vote in local, municipal elections. The bill, which would empower long-term residents -- not transients or tourists -- has over a dozen sponsors and is gaining greater support and attention.

A similar bill was introduced in the last council but did not pass. Hearings were held on it in November. At that time, a number of witnesses spoke in support of the measure, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed it. In a letter, Karen Meara, the mayor's director of city legislative affairs, said, “The administration believes that the better avenue for expanding the franchise is by making available the appropriate mechanisms and incentives for non-citizens to obtain citizenship."

Such debate is about the very nature of citizenship and democracy in America, including who should be allowed to vote. After all, voting is only for citizens, right? Not really.

When Non-Citizens Could Vote

Although it is not widely known, non-citizen voting is as old as the republic itself and as American as apple pie and baseball. Non-citizens voted from 1776 until 1926 in 40 states and territories in local, state, and even federal elections. Non-citizens also held public office. In a country where "no taxation without representation" was once a rallying cry for revolution, such a proposition did not seem far-fetched but another way to have government rest "on the consent of the governed."

Globally, more than 40 countries allow non-citizens voting rights in local and/or national elections. In this country, non-citizens vote in local elections in six towns in Maryland and in Chicago school elections. Parents who were not citizens could vote in New York City community school board elections from 1968 until 2003, when the community school boards were eliminated with the reorganization of the school system.

Another dozen jurisdictions from coast to coast have launched campaigns to win voting rights for non-citizens, with such efforts underway in Washington D.C., California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, North Carolina, Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. These campaigns propose allowing long-term residents to vote in local and/or state elections, but not federal races. Proponents, who include a broad range of immigrant and civil rights groups, faith-based organizations, unions, and civic leaders, contend that winning voting rights would help advance immigrant interests and provide benefits to all members of localities more generally.

Advocates of non-citizen voting say the reasoning behind their movement is similar to the ideas that animated the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. Voting has always been about who has a say and who will have influence over the actions of government, not citizenship per se. The idea that non-citizens should have the vote is older, was practiced longer, and is more consistent with democratic ideals than the idea that they should not.

One in Five New Yorkers

Non-citizens work in every sector of the economy, own homes and businesses, attend colleges and send children to schools -- and pay billions in taxes each year. They are subject to all the laws that govern citizens, serve in the military, and die defending the United States. Yet, they cannot vote on issues that affect their daily lives.

Nationally, almost 25 million adults are barred from voting because they lack U.S. citizenship. In New York City, non-citizens make up 22 percent of the total adult population. That is one out of five New Yorkers. About 80 percent of the immigrants in New York came to the country legally. In some City Council districts, the proportion of non-citizens rises to over 40 percent.

Some elected officials represent the interest of all their all their constituents – citizens or not. But many others ignore the concerns of non-voters in their districts. Excluding immigrants from the political process can lead to discriminatory public policy and private practices in employment, housing, education, healthcare, welfare, and criminal justice -- not to mention racial profiling, xenophobic hate crimes, and arbitrary detention and deportation. Non-citizens suffer social and economic inequities in part because policymakers can ignore their interests. Immigrant voting rights, advocates argue, would help reverse such inequities. It would put greater pressure on candidates, parties and public officials of all political stripes to take into account and heed the wishes and interests of all New Yorkers.

Opponents counter that immigrants should just become citizens to gain the right to vote. But getting citizenship takes eight to ten years, or longer – longer than the two terms for the mayor and all City Council members

Some critics say that such legislation would reduce incentives to naturalize and cheapen citizenship. But voting is only one of at least 10 rights and privileges that immigrants gain when they naturalize. Others include qualifying for certain benefits, public jobs and appointments, travel, and ability to bring relatives to the U.S. This legislation would permit legal residents to vote only in municipal elections -- not state and federal elections -- leaving plenty of incentives to naturalize.

Advocates of resident voting support efforts to speed up the naturalization process and to increase pathways to citizenship. But they argue that these are not mutually exclusive efforts. On the contrary, non-citizen voting would better prepare incipient Americans for eventual citizenship.

Democracy is an evolving concept and practice. The expansion of the franchise has been an important vehicle for disempowered groups in American history to achieve economic, social and civil rights and equality. The immigrant rights movement is today’s civil rights movement, and non-citizen voting is the suffrage movement of our time. New York, home of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, symbolizes America’s past and future as an immigrant nation. It would be appropriate to affirm this leadership role by restoring non-citizen voting in our great city’s elections.

Ron Hayduk teaches political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and is the author of Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States (Routledge, 2006), and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Voting Project.

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen. 

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