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Immigrants were allowed to vote in the US until the 1920s. What if they still could?

Lines at a Las Vegas polling station for 2016 election
Reuters/David Becker
US citizens line up to vote in Las Vegas.
By Max de Haldevang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s hard to believe given the tone of this campaign, but in the second half of the 19th century, US states like Alabama, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina actively courted immigrants by giving them the right to vote.

In fact, immigrant voting was so widespread that at the end of the 1800s, nearly half the US states and territories had seen aliens voting in some form. Legal aliens could “even run for office,” Ron Hayduk, an associate professor of political science San Francisco State University, told Bloomberg.

No doubt this wasn’t just out of altruism. The post-Civil War progressive atmosphere probably did genuinely enthuse many lawmakers to embrace foreigners, but the South also had a serious labor gap to fill in after the abolition of slavery—and immigrants could do those jobs nicely (and cheaply), suggests James Raskin, a legal scholar at American University and Democratic candidate for congress.

Immigrant voting didn’t last long, though. Factors like patriotic fervor around World War I and the assassination of President William McKinley by the son of Polish immigrants saw the national mood turn hostile towards foreigners, according to lawyer and Columbia University executive vice president Gerald Rosberg. By 1928, no non-citizens were allowed to vote for national, state, or local office.

But what if they still could?

In 2014, 13.3% of people living in America were foreign born. That’s about 42 million overall. They would become tied for the second biggest voting bloc in the US, equal with African Americans (13.3%) and not far behind Hispanics (17.6%). (Obviously, there’s a lot of crossover between some of these categories and many immigrants are US citizens).

There’s little data on non-citizen voter preferences, but Thomas Holbrook, professor of government at Wisconsin-Milwaukee University, finds a strong correlation between states with a high proportion of foreign born voters and those voting Democrat. The correlation has strengthened since the 1990s—a period that has seen a huge boom in immigration.

Donald Trump hasn’t exactly been reticent about alienating huge groups of voters during this campaign. But the 2016 presidential election does look like it might come down to turnout among African American and Latino voters—two large voting blocs Trump has not polled well with. If there were yet another angered subset of the population hitting the polls, it would almost certainly tip the balance well beyond the Donald’s favor.

Alas. ‘Til 2020, maybe?

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