Contrary to popular opinion, voting in America is not intrinsically tied to citizenship. Voting has always been about who has a say in selecting representatives. And political exclusion is a recipe for disastrous, discriminatory public policy and private practice.
And yet the US is, again, excluding a large and growing segment of its population from the democratic process.
Over the last few weeks, New York state has been considering a law to make nearly 3 million non-citizen residents eligible to vote. A similar piece of legislation soon to be reintroduced to the New York City Council, which actually has a decent shot at passage, would give more than 1 million legal non-citizen residents the right to vote in local elections.
Can you imagine how electoral dynamics in New York City would change if 1 million new voters were added to the rolls, particularly if those new voters were the newest New Yorkers? The “Voting Rights Restoration Act” would restore (yes, restore) voting rights to legal non-citizen immigrants in municipal elections (to vote for mayor, comptroller, city council members, and borough presidents).
People are usually surprised to learn that non-citizen immigrants voted historically, and are even more surprised to know they do so currently—and legally—in the US. Historically, non-citizens voted from the founding of the US in 1776 to 1926 in 40 states and federal territories (including New York). Non-citizens voted in local, state, and even federal elections. Currently, non-citizens vote in local elections in six towns in Maryland and in school elections in Chicago. And from 1969 to 2002, non-citizens voted in New York City’s 32 Community School Board elections. Non-citizens also ran and successfully held office in those bodies, to good ends. It is one of the best and proven ways to facilitate voter participation, immigrant incorporation, and government accountability. Remarkably, New York has another chance to restore this effective way to boost civic engagement and representative governance. Globally, at least 45 countries on nearly every continent allow for non-citizen voting, whether at the national, regional or local level.
The vote helps keep government responsive and accountable to members of a polity. Equally important, benefits would accrue to all community members and to the city’s political life as a whole, just as the successful incorporation of previously excluded groups have done for us all today.
Currently, one out of five (22%) adult New Yorkers are counted for districting purposes, pay taxes, and contribute in countless ways the life of the city, but they can’t vote because they are not US citizens. In some districts, the proportion of adult non-citizens is higher—one-third to one half of the resident population in 21 of the 51 city council districts are adult non-citizens. What do these conditions mean for such notions as “one person, one vote” and that “government rests on the consent of the governed?” Today’s immigrant political exclusion approximates the political exclusion of women, African-Americans, and youth before laws were changed (in 1920, 1965, 1971 respectively) to incorporate them into the electorate.
Non-citizen immigrants work, pay taxes, send their children to schools, start businesses, revitalize neighborhoods, and contribute mightily to the vitality of our communities in countless ways on a daily basis. But they have no formal say over how their taxes are spent. Local voting rights would not only address this taxation without representation but also would strengthen municipal governing institutions by making them responsive and accountable to all, which is after all, the essence of democracy.