(Percentage of noncitizen residents, by district)
Published in The Guardian, 2 April, 2015
New York City is routinely described as a “global hub”, a place so thoroughly penetrated by international capital and migration that it seems at once within and without the United States. It is the centre of American commerce and media, but its politics, demographics and worldly outlook make the Big Apple an outlier.
New York may be about to become even more distinct. The left-leaning New York City council is currently drafting legislation that would allow all legal residents, regardless of citizenship, the right to vote in city elections. If the measure passes into law, it would mark a major victory for a voting rights campaign that seeks to enfranchise non-citizen voters in local elections across the country. A few towns already permit non-citizen residents to vote locally, but New York City would be by far the largest jurisdiction to do so.
Under the likely terms of the legislation, legally documented residents who have lived in New York City for at least six months will be able to vote in municipal elections. Reports suggest that the city council is discussing the legislation with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, and that a bill might be introduced as soon as this spring.
While the legislation stands a good chance of sailing through the council and even winning the approval of the mayor, the prospect of New York City enfranchising its residents has stoked controversy. Many Americans find the idea of non-citizen voting entirely unpalatable and fear that it undermines the sanctity and privilege of citizenship.
Advocates for non-citizen voting in New York City argue that it would right a glaring wrong. Invoking the ancient American battle cry of “no taxation without representation”, they point to the enormous numbers of non-citizen residents who pay taxes, send their children to public schools, are active members of their communities, but have no say in local elections.
“People are New Yorkers in profound ways without being citizens of the US,” said Ronald Hayduk, a professor of political science at Queens College and a member of the Coalition to Expand Voting Rights. Non-citizen residents contribute $18.2bn to New York state in income taxes every year. According to a 2013 Fiscal Policy Institute study, 1.3 million people in New York City over the age of 18 are non-citizens (a full 21% of the voting age population). Adjusting the figure to account for undocumented migrants, the study claims that about one million more New Yorkers would be eligible to vote were the bill passed.
In the immigrant-heavy borough of Queens, non-citizens make up as much as half of the population in areas like Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona. In parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, they make up well over a third of certain districts. “It’s very different in New York than in middle America,” said Jerry Vattamala, a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“Elected officials salivate at the prospect of districts with people they don’t have to respond to,” he says. “Many of these communities have lots of non-naturalized residents or newly naturalized residents who are not yet practiced in voting. They get treated like human fillers.” Advocates believe that legal residents should have a say in the daily matters that affect them, like transportation, public safety, affordable housing, language access and translation services, sanitation, schools and parks.
Democratic city councilman Daniel Dromm, the bill’s architect, represents District 25, which includes parts of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. “Enfranchising non-citizens would make communities like mine more important to city-wide and state officials,” he said. “We can’t ignore them if they can vote.”
Like local elections elsewhere in the US, local elections in New York City suffer from shrinking turnout: 24% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2013 election that brought De Blasio to office, a new low. “It’s ironic that people think national or state elections are more important than local elections, when they better determine lived day-to-day realities,” Hayduk says. “If there were 1 million new voters in New York City, voter turnout would increase.”
More importantly, Hayduk says, non-citizen voting would refresh local politics to better reflect the needs of city residents. “It would produce new issues, new candidates, and new outcomes.”
He offered an example from the 1980s. From 1969 to 2002, non-citizen New Yorkers could vote in community school board elections (the school board was abolished in 2003). Civic groups encouraged thousands of Dominican non-citizen residents of Washington Heights to vote in school board polls. Their participation eventually forced the administration of Mayor Ed Koch to direct greater resources to neglected schools.
Dromm tried two years ago to advance legislation on non-citizen voting. He had won the support of 35 of the city council’s 51 members, forming a veto-proof majority. But he faced the obstruction of then council speaker Christine Quinn and the unbreakable opposition of the Bloomberg administration. “The speaker and the mayor didn’t want [the legislation] to go forward,” Dromm said. “The speaker exerted power over the council’s committees.” The legislation stalled on the council floor.
Two years later, political circumstances make its passage much more tenable. The current city council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, supports the proposal. While he hasn’t given his explicit backing, De Blasio claims that he remains open to debate on non-citizen voting. The mayor has launched other pro-immigrant reforms, like the municipal ID card scheme.
The city council’s three lonely Republicans have repeatedly voiced their opposition to non-citizen voting. Two of them come from the Republican redoubt of Staten Island and represent districts with very few non-citizens, 4% and 10% respectively. The third, Eric Ulrich, represents a Queens district where one-fifth of residents are non-citizens. “The right to vote is a privilege and a sacred obligation that citizens have enjoyed. It should only be for United States citizens,” he told Newsday. “It’s also a reason for people who are on a path to citizenship to aspire to citizenship. It’s something for them to look forward to.”
Peter Schuck, an emeritus professor of law at Yale University, also worries about the dilution of citizenship. “My guess is that it would cause many Americans to wonder what the point of citizenship is if anyone can vote without even bothering to learn or be committed enough to apply for naturalization,” he said via email.
According to Vattamala, this emphasis on the meaning of citizenship misrepresents the very limited, local scope of non-citizen voting. “Did school board elections – where non-naturalized parents with children in local schools voted – defile the sanctity of citizenship?” he says. “It’s about effective representation. If people live here and pay taxes, they have a stake in the city.”
Permitting non-citizen voting would also address the fact that pathways to citizenship are not as straightforward as they were for immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “It’s more complicated and expensive now compared to a century ago, when it was much easier, faster, and cheaper to become a citizen,” Hayduk said. He argues that far from being a disincentive to citizenship, non-citizen voting would empower New Yorkers and serve as a vehicle for integration, fostering “the experience of the practice of citizenship”. Vattamala agrees. “Most people engaged enough to vote in municipal elections will become citizens,” he said.
Citizenship has not always been the prerequisite for suffrage in the US. During the first 150 years of American history, non-citizens were allowed to vote in 40 states and territories. “Alien suffrage” was whittled away in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, coinciding with large waves of migration from eastern and southern Europe. A xenophobic 1902 Washington Post editorial captured the political mood, bemoaning the “marked and increasing deterioration in the quality of immigration” and fretting that the newcomers were “men who are no more fit to be trusted with the ballot than babies are to be furnished with friction matches for playthings”.
“Voting in America has constantly changed,” Dromm said. “We have an evolving understanding of suffrage. Women and African Americans were given voting rights. Now it’s time to restore those rights to non-citizens.”
Currently in the US, six small towns in Maryland allow non-citizen voting in local elections. Chicago lets non-citizens vote in its school elections. Non-citizen voting exists elsewhere in the world, chiefly within the context of supranational arrangements like the European Union, the Nordic Passport Union and the British Commonwealth. But many countries extend suffrage more broadly, like New Zealand and Chile, where permanent residents are allowed to vote regardless of their nationality, and Colombia and Ireland, where foreigners can vote in local elections. Advocates of non-citizen voting believe that a victory in New York City would have tremendous symbolic importance in their efforts to expand voting rights across the country.
“As New York City goes,” Dromm said, “so goes the rest of the world.”