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Opinion: Why noncitizens should be allowed to vote

Thursday, New York became the largest American city to give noncitizens the right to vote in local elections. The New York City Council passed the “Our City, Our Vote” measure by a more than two-to-one vote. Under the legislation, noncitizens who are legal permanent residents and have lived in the city for at least 30 days will be allowed to vote in elections for mayor, public advocate, city council, among other local offices. The legislation is set to go into effect in January 2023.
Raul A. ReyesRaul A. Reyes
Allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections is smart policy that is legally sound. It will strengthen communities and give more residents an investment in politics that affect their daily lives. And allowing noncitizens to vote is rooted in both American tradition and ideals.
To be clear, New York’s move is not about allowing undocumented people to vote. The legislation passed largely affects legal immigrants, such as green card holders, people with work permits and young people who have qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Nor does the new legislation allow noncitizens to vote in federal elections.
The strongest case in favor of noncitizens voting is the easiest to grasp. There are about 15 million legal non-residents in the country and about 800,000 in New York City. These are our neighbors who pay taxes, send their children to public schools, start businesses and contribute to their communities. They should be able to elect leaders and have a say in local politics just like anyone else.
Giving noncitizens the right to vote will encourage civic engagement, thereby strengthening the cities that allow it. The more people who vote, the more accurately leaders and policies will reflect their constituencies.
The New York state GOP has vowed to take action against the legislation, including taking “any legal action necessary to prevent the bill from becoming law.” But the Constitution does not prohibit noncitizens from voting. In Minor v. Happersett (1874), the US Supreme Court affirmed “citizenship has not in all cases been made a condition precedent to the enjoyment of the right of suffrage.”
New York City gives noncitizens right to vote in local elections New York City gives noncitizens right to vote in local elections
It might surprise people to know allowing noncitizens to vote is an idea that is neither new nor radical. Voting by noncitizens has a history going back to the founding of our country. From 1776 to 1926, San Francisco State University Professor Ron Hayduk notes, noncitizens could vote in local, state, and some national elections; some could also hold office.
Even today, although New York state’s constitution says “every citizen shall be entitled to vote at every election,” it does not say noncitizens cannot vote. This distinction will be important for the expected legal challenges to New York City’s measure.
The city’s move is part of a growing, although slow, trend towards expanding the electorate. A handful of jurisdictions in the US already allow noncitizens to vote, including nine Maryland cities and San Francisco. Noncitizen voting legislation is being considered in Massachusetts, Illinois and the District of Columbia as well. New York City allowing noncitizens to vote could pave the way for more localities to move ahead with similar measures.
There is a practical component to the case for allowing noncitizens to vote, too. If a green card holder wants to naturalize and become a citizen, it takes money for fees and legal expenses, and, most importantly, time. In 2019, the New York Times reported it took an average of 10 months for aspiring Americans to go through the naturalization process, and that is on top of the at least five years green card holders must wait before they can apply for naturalization. It is not fair that these potential citizens should go so long without any civic voice as their cases wind their way through our backlogged immigration system.
Consider that our country was founded upon the ideas of “no taxation without representation” or that the Declaration of Independence states “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Barring noncitizens from voting would seem to violate both of these principles.
Predictably, Republicans have quickly come out against New York City’s legislation. “Allowing our elections to be decided by foreign citizens is unacceptable, and the RNC is looking closely at our legal options as we continue our fight to protect your ballot,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
Her words are almost laughable given that Republican-led legislatures across the country have consistently moved to restrict voting access. Nineteen states have passed 33 news laws this year that make it harder to vote, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. And the conservative majority installed by Republicans on the US Supreme Court has been chipping away at voting rights for years. Republicans have no legal or moral standing to whine about protecting the right to vote.
New York City did the right thing in moving towards allowing noncitizens to vote. It will be good for the city — and good for democracy.
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