Noncitizens may get right to vote in NYC
A proposal would allow noncitizen residents in the city to vote for local political leaders
New York City is primed to become the largest municipality to enfranchise a new group of voters: noncitizens.
The Our City, Our Vote bill, expected to pass a City Council vote easily on Dec. 9, would allow nearly 900,000 noncitizens with legal status to cast ballots in local elections. Proponents of the plan celebrate its effort to include swaths of people who are often deeply involved in a community but cannot vote for its political leaders. But critics warn that such a departure from American precedent will have political and practical complications.
New York’s bill would create a new designation for “municipal voters,” legal residents who have lived in the city for at least 30 days before the election and have registered to vote. Any resident with a green card or work authorization, and young immigrants known as “Dreamers,” would also be allowed to vote under the legislation. Municipal voters would not have to register with a political party unless they choose to vote in a primary election. The bill grants noncitizen voting rights only for city elections, not state or federal elections, which federal law prohibits.
“New York City will show the nation how a true representative democracy should function,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, in a press release. “These New Yorkers deserve a chance to be heard in how our city works—from the quality of their neighborhood schools to all the big and small ways City decisions impact every resident’s daily life.”
The U.S. Constitution does not clearly state that noncitizens may not vote, but some states have written that limitation into their own constitutions. For example, Florida, Alabama, and North Dakota—all Republican-led states—explicitly ban noncitizens from voting in state or local elections.
Noncitizen voting measures are more common in majority-liberal municipalities. Eleven of Maryland’s municipalities allow noncitizens to vote, the most of any state. The state has also allowed individual cities to lower the voting age to 16.
Stella Rouse, a University of Maryland professor of politics and director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement, said the movement represents a desire to give more community residents a say in local government. Although she noted that adding noncitizens to voting rolls has failed to boost local election turnout in Maryland, she attributed that to a lack of information and mobilization.
San Francisco has allowed any resident to vote in school board elections since 2018, whether or not they reside legally in the United States. Chicago has also permitted noncitizens to vote for school councils, and a new proposal before the Illinois Senate would expand that allowance to school board elections.
Rouse believes noncitizen voting efforts are contentious primarily because they are intertwined with race issues. “The overall issue is how our country treats immigrants,” she said. “This brings to bear some of the hard conversations this country continues to have with respect to how they treat and view ‘the other.’”
But Howard Husock, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow, criticized the New York bill and described the citizenship process as the keystone of democracy. Immigrants who go through naturalization classes learn about American history and democratic process—details essential for voters to know, he said.
“Will they understand what the City Council does? Will they understand English, which is required on the citizenship test? Will they have an understanding of the political system, culture, and arguments to make an informed choice?” Husock asked. “This is turning your back as a city government on the laws of the United States of America. That’s not a healthy trend.”
The New York City bill underwent nearly two years of debate over its legality since Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez introduced it in January 2020. Opponents are concerned the bill exceeds the council’s authority. The New York Constitution says every citizen “shall be entitled to vote,” but Rodriguez and other supporters point out it does not explicitly deny noncitizens the vote.
Mayor Bill de Blasio previously said he had misgivings about the bill because it might disincentivize citizenship. (Rouse thinks that is unlikely: “Those pursuing citizenship take a lot of pride in wanting to become American citizens, and it’s not just about voting.”)
Husock contends that rather than removing a citizenship requirement, a better pathway is for states and Congress to ease the naturalization process for immigrants. A noncitizen vote, he said, would complicate an already messy political process.
“There’s a foreign policy dimension to it because these newly enfranchised are citizens of another country,” Husock said. “Candidates have an incentive to say ‘We’re going to do things to help Haiti or Mexico’ because they want to appeal to citizens of those countries. As part of citizenship, you have to take an oath of allegiance.”
Thirty-five out of the 51 New York City Council members have co-sponsored the bill, guaranteeing it enough support to pass the Dec. 9 vote and, if necessary, override a veto. If the mayor does not sign or veto the bill within 30 days, it becomes law. De Blasio’s term ends in December, and Mayor-elect Eric Adams repeatedly supported the Our City, Our Vote measure during his campaign.
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