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Analysis: Let the people vote. But which people?

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The suffrage is only for local elections, and only for legal permanent residents like green card holders and those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
But it will instantly up the number of eligible voters in the city by nearly 800,000, according to the estimate CNN’s Kelly Mena cited in her report. In a cosmopolitan city of immigrants, those 800,000 people come from all over. The Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, Jamaica and Guyana are the most well-represented countries of birth for immigrants, according to city government data.
New York will be the largest US jurisdiction to allow noncitizen voting, but it is not the only one. Cities in Maryland and Vermont, along with San Francisco, also allow it.
Arguments for. Supporters argue that noncitizens pay taxes, own businesses and send their kids to public schools, which means they should also have a say in government.
Arguments against. Opponents, like outgoing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, argue it will discourage legal permanent residents from pursuing full citizenship.
Out of step with GOP-led states. New York’s move is jarring when set against former President Donald Trump’s fearmongering about election fraud, his previous unfounded allegations about undocumented immigrants voting and the new laws in GOP-led states that restrict ballot access.
Not part of national voting rights efforts. While Democrats have raised the alarm about GOP efforts to make voting more difficult, they have not coalesced around noncitizen voting.
The national standard for voting that Democrats have proposed on Capitol Hill, which remains stalled there, does not include allowing noncitizens to vote.
Mena notes that multiple states — Alabama, Colorado and Florida — explicitly outlaw noncitizen voting.
Far more energy has been spent by Democrats and some Republicans on re-enfranchising felons who serve their time — something voters have generally supported, such as in Florida.
How many people cannot vote? Together, felons and noncitizens represent a fairly large proportion of society — tens of millions of people — that is not able to take part in federal and state elections.
It’s not easy to figure out exactly how many people live in the US but can’t vote here. The 2020 census notably did not ask whether a person is a US citizen.
Here’s one estimate. The political scientist Michael McDonald, who tracks voter turnout, pegged the US voting-age population at around 258 million in 2020. A smaller population of about 239 million was eligible to vote, according to his calculations. He surmised about 3.3 million people were felons and ineligible to vote depending on state rules. The rest of the 19 million or so people who live in the US aren’t citizens.
The proportion of noncitizens varies by state. About 6.8% of the total US population was noncitizen, according to a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation report.
In most states, the noncitizen population is much smaller. But three of the nation’s most populous states — California, New York and Texas — are also the only three states with noncitizen populations above 10%.
The proportion of immigrants who can vote has grown in recent years. About half of immigrants to the US are now voting-eligible citizens, according to a Pew study in 2020, up from 38% in 2000.
It takes about seven years to become a citizen. The US naturalized more than 800,000 people in fiscal year 2021, a rebound after the pandemic caused a dip.
Where else is the topic of noncitizens voting an issue? This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. And the US noncitizen population is not as large, proportionally, compared with some other industrialized countries.
CNN International reported last week on efforts to enfranchise noncitizens in Germany, where about 14% of the population cannot vote in federal elections like the one recently conducted there.
CNN met three activists and politicians determined to change the system and open the door for immigrants and other non-German citizens to vote.
In the US, where government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people,” Americans have been arguing about who can vote and how since the country was founded. And it varies from state to state.
The voting amendments. As I first noted in 2019, there are not one or two but seven constitutional amendments that deal directly with who gets to vote and how. And a lot of laws have been passed since then, too. What’s below comes from my earlier report:
  • The 12th Amendment, passed in 1803, set out more specific rules for electors in presidential elections.
  • The 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War, said men ages 21 and over could vote unless they had joined in a rebellion or committed other crimes.
  • The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, said men could vote, regardless of their race, though African Americans were still largely discriminated against using other methods until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, said senators should be chosen by the people and not state legislatures. It didn’t specifically say which people.
  • The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, said states couldn’t keep women from voting.
  • The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, said citizens of Washington, DC, got three electoral votes (but no representation in Congress).
  • The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, lowered the voting age from 21 down to 18, although some states let people who are 17 vote in primaries if they’ll be 18 on Election Day.
Basically, it took almost 200 years to get from “the people” to a system that includes citizen men, women and Black voters 18 or older.
Noncitizens could actually vote in some states until 1928. Congress didn’t outlaw noncitizens voting in federal elections until 1996.
Catch-22 for Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, so they can vote in presidential primaries and local elections. But only if they move away from Puerto Rico to the mainland US can they take part in congressional or presidential elections in their new state of residence.
Felons voting. States also have vastly different rules when it comes to felons. Voters in Florida overwhelmingly said felons should get the vote back after they’ve paid their debt.
In Vermont, felons can vote while they’re in jail.
All of this means that our definition of “the people” is different depending on where you live. And this democracy keeps changing.
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