I live in an amazing, diverse community. There are people here from all over the world ranging from Mexico to Canada, Ireland to Kenya. We’re also an active community, with many of my neighbors attending city council meetings and spending their free time informing the neighborhood of issues that directly affect us.
When election time comes, the one thing many in my community don’t do is vote. These very involved and informed long-term legal residents, some of whom have lived here for more than 30 years, are not citizens and, therefore, do not have the right to vote.
Voting is generally a right (within parameters set by governing bodies) of a nation’s citizens. You may be surprised to learn, however, that in the United States, we don’t have a constitutional right to participate. While our Constitution prohibits denying citizens suffrage on varying factors (i.e., birth – 14th Amendment, race – 15th Amendment, or gender – 19th Amendment), there is no explicit amendment granting American citizens the right to vote and individual states are allowed to make up their own rules.
We know how well that’s worked out (Voting Rights Act, anyone?).
On May 9, 2013, New York City’s Committees on Governmental Operations and Immigration held a hearing to consider a local law that would allow non-citizens, legally residing in New York City, to vote in city elections. This law would create a new category of voters called “municipality voters,” allowing them to have a voice regarding local issues. This isn’t new for New York City. Starting in 1970, non-citizens were permitted to vote in school board elections, until school boards were eliminated in 2003. There was also an attempt to restore non-citizen voting rights in 2005.
Our nation has had a history of allowing non-citizens to vote. It was believed by our early framers that allowing recent immigrants to participate in this new thing called democracy would encourage them to become Americans and help propel the nascent nation forward. They were right. In his 2006 book, Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States, Ron Hayduk chronicles the history of immigrant voting in the United States. During the first 150 years of our nation’s history (1776-1926), more than 20 states allowed non-citizens to vote in local, state and federal elections. Granted, these non-citizens still had to be white, male, and property owners…but they were allowed to participate.
As the voting population became less male and less white, efforts to limit who could vote ramped up. It wasn’t difficult to eliminate voting for non-citizens. In recent years, political forces have been working diligently to reduce the number of actual citizens who can vote by making it harder for them to do so (voter ID laws, anyone?).
I’m sure it’s a coincidence that these citizens happen to be largely minority, female, or elderly.
Voting is mainly a state issue, but federal laws do limit what states can do. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 made it a federal crime for a non-citizen to vote in a federal election. It further limited non-citizens’ participation by prohibiting those without a green card to donate to any candidate campaigning for political office.
Currently, Chicago allows non-citizens who are here legally to vote in local school board elections. Maryland also has six municipalities that allow similar participation. As of the writing of this article, the committee in New York City has “laid over” the discussion on the proposed bill. It should be noted that Mayor Bloomberg does not support it.
I can understand wanting to limit the right to vote to the nation’s citizenry. In a country that essentially just requires you to take a test (and wait several years and come up with several thousand dollars), to be an American, there’s something to be said for having something just for…us. Still, I think about my neighbors. They are active, contributing members of our community, pay taxes and own businesses. Yet, they are unable to have a say in their representation or on the issues that affect them directly.
This doesn’t seem fair.
According to the committee report of the New York City Governmental Affairs Division, allowing non-citizens to vote would allow approximately 1.5 million New York City residents, who contribute approximately $18.2 million in taxes annually, to have a say in local elections. It is estimated that as of 2011, the legal permanent resident population in the United States was more than 13 million.
If just one vote can make a difference, can you imagine what 13 million more could do?