On Tuesday, millions of people across the country who could have the right to vote won’t be able to. Nearly 14 million legal permanent residents, not to mention hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, have made their homes here and should be able to weigh in on local elections that have a direct effect on their everyday lives.
The New York City council is poised to allow this to happen, and to set a national example for how we integrate noncitizens into our communities. Last month the council held hearings on a bill that would allow certain noncitizens — lawful residents who have lived in the city for more than 30 days — to vote in city elections. In other words, any New Yorker with a green card could cast a vote for mayor, council member, comptroller and other local elected officials. The bill’s sponsors have a veto-proof majority, and support from Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee to be the city’s next mayor. The council should pass the bill before its term ends this year.
And then the rest of the country should follow suit.
Right now, noncitizen voting is quite rare — so rare that it may sound exotic, or even unconstitutional. In fact, noncitizen voting is older than the republic itself. It was universal in colonial times and remained through the 18th and 19th centuries. What’s new is the argument that only citizens should vote, an idea that took hold in the early 20th century when a rash of nativist and racist local laws were passed to disenfranchise African Americans, Jews, Italians and others deemed “inferior” to the “white” population.
Yet even today, the possibility of noncitizen voting remains intact and to be seized; every state constitution except Arizona’s and North Dakota’s permits it. Federal law explicitly recognizes that states and cities may allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, though not in federal ones.
Only 14 municipalities currently allow noncitizens to vote in at least one type of local election: one in California, two in Vermont and 11 in Maryland. But if New York were to join this small group, we could better challenge the weird idea that it is somehow “normal” to exclude noncitizens from basic decisions about our shared civic life.
On the face of it, noncitizen voting is a matter of basic fairness. People who live, work and pay taxes in our communities should have a say in how they are governed. Noncitizen New Yorkers contribute nearly $3 billion per year in city taxes, for example.
But there will be less obvious benefits as well. For one thing, changing who votes could change who runs for office. Advocates of the council bill estimate that it will immediately add more than 850,000 to the rolls in New York City alone, which should affect who becomes a candidate.
Letting noncitizens vote will also likely change how we think about resettlement of newcomers. Consider the 49,000 and counting Afghan refugees at domestic military bases on the verge of being settled by the federal government in communities around the country, where they can seek work authorization: Under the council bill model, many should be able to vote after settling into their new homes.
Many of these people have risked their lives, have lost friends and family, home and future, because they believe in our democratic ideals. We owe them the vote. Isn’t this the most basic aspect of democracy? Isn’t it what we and they fought for? Instead of thinking of giving them a special right, we should see this as another responsibility for people who want to actively contribute in their new neighborhoods.
New Yorkers in particular understand the practical and symbolic importance of this bill, because the majority know the immigrant experience firsthand. Most New Yorkers grew up as I did, either as immigrants or with at least one immigrant in our households. We know that citizens and noncitizens are in the same boat.
Last year, I was a candidate for a local office in New York City. In immigrant-rich neighborhoods like Washington Heights, I regularly met grandmothers who told me they would ask their children and grandchildren to vote for me, because they couldn’t themselves cast a vote.
Every time I heard this, I thought about my father. My dad was 30 years old when he came to this country, seeking asylum after we fled the violence and antisemitism of revolutionary Iran. Although my parents quickly got authorization to work here, my dad turned 45 before he became a citizen and could cast his first vote. In those 15 years of waiting, it would not have “made sense” for a candidate like me to direct my energies to someone like him. Multiply him by a million, and that’s a huge part of the city to overlook.
For those of us who hoped that President Joe Biden would quickly correct federal anti-immigrant policies, the past months have been a source of frustration and disappointment. Last month, American law enforcement officers who looked like cowboys appeared to whip desperate Haitians seeking refuge in our country. We left behind tens of thousands of Afghan allies during the summer evacuation.
Comprehensive immigration reform — or even more modest and seemingly popular legislation, such as to legalize the status of “Dreamers” — remains as elusive as it did during the Obama administration, thwarted recently by the Senate parliamentarian. In fact, no president since Ronald Reagan has managed to transform the immigration system dramatically for the better. Maybe New York City can open the way for real change.
Letting noncitizens vote is no substitute for immigration reform on the federal level, but it is meaningful and within the power of most cities, towns and counties. Let’s hope that a year from now, noncitizen voting will be the new normal around the United States.