D.C. and New York City Could be Next in Giving the Vote to Noncitizens

About 12 million legal immigrants nationwide are sidelined from the political process, but local legislation might just change that for some.

In Washington, D.C., about 54,000 people pay taxes, send their kids to school and can join the military because they have green cards, making them legal U.S. residents. But because they're not citizens, they can't vote for who runs their children's' schools, what city hall does with their tax money, or who manages essential public services in their neighborhoods.

There are about 12 million immigrants in similar situations nationwide.

"Noncitizens suffer social and economic inequities, in part, because policymakers can ignore their interests. The vote is a proven mechanism to keep government responsive and accountable to all."--Ron Hayduk, political science professor

In D.C., about one in eight people are immigrants, but only 30 percent of them are citizens eligible to vote. Last week, local D.C. legislators heard mostly supportive testimony for a bill that would grant voting rights to noncitizen residents.

The Local Resident Voting Rights Act of 2015, introduced by council member David Grosso, would allow legal residents to vote for, among other things, leaders on the education board, city council members, and the mayor.

Given today's heated immigration reform debates, the idea is extremely controversial. However, six towns in Maryland have similar laws allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, the oldest being Takoma Park. Chicago allows permanent residents who are parents of schoolchildren to vote in district elections. And in New York City, a council member is currently drafting a similar bill that would extend local voting rights to 1 million people. Two years ago, Queens council member Daniel Dromm had the city council's majority support, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out against it. The bill never saw a vote. But now there's a new mayor, and the proposed law is expected to gain wide support once more.

Critics of such legislation often say that allowing noncitizens to vote would tarnish what is supposed to be a sacred privilege.

Dorothy Brizill, a local D.C. activist, told WAMU that something like this is "particularly sensitive, and of concern to those individuals, both black and white, who are aware of the long historical struggle to secure the right to vote for all American citizens. For many, the right to vote is the essence of citizenship."

Grosso understands this concern, but he thinks that "when you're talking about these very local issues that impact you on a day-to-day basis, I don't think that requires being a citizen."

The history of noncitizen voters goes back several hundred years. From 1776 to 1926, the U.S. allowed some noncitizens to vote in more than 40 states and federal territories.

It began, says Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at Queens College in New York, with noncitizens demanding voting privileges. That turned into a battle cry: "No taxation without representation!"

Noncitizen voters helped expand the American West. They settled territories that later became states. Then, in the 1920s, anti-immigrant sentiment spread across the country. In response, the government set quotas for how many people could enter the United States, and from which countries.

Hayduk advocates for noncitizen voting rights in local elections, and he even wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. In it, he wrote that in some towns, noncitizens make up almost half of voting-age adults who have no say in their local government. Even in places like Los Angeles and New York City, they make up one-third to a quarter of the voting age of the population.

"Noncitizens suffer social and economic inequities, in part, because policymakers can ignore their interests," Hayduk wrote in the op-ed. "The vote is a proven mechanism to keep government responsive and accountable to all."

Opponents believe that noncitizens get a good deal from their tax money. They gain access to social services and public schools. They can serve in community organizations. And, some argue, blurring the line between citizens and noncitizens will only lead to confusion.

"Boy, is that a slippery slope," says Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center.

Boehm says his wife immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua and spent years obtaining citizenship. Voting is a privilege for those who struggled through the process. Anything else would be "diluting the value" of citizenship, he says.

There's also, he believes, quite a bit of political pandering in a bill like this. "The people who advocate this clearly think they would get the votes of the noncitizens," Boehm says.

Yet there are a lot of people who live in this country for many years, hoping to become citizens, but can't because of how hard it has become. "We always encourage people to become full citizens," says Jaime Contreras, vice president of the D.C. division of the Service Employees International Union, called 32BJ. "This is a good first step to give them a local voice in their politics."

Most of the people Contreras advocates for in D.C. are Latino immigrants. Many come from El Salvador and work as security officers or in maintenance. They clean public schools, offices, and buildings where politicians meet. The majority would like to become citizens, Contreras says, but the average wait is about eight years. And it's expensive. So as they wait for citizenship, they live, work, and become part of communities in which they have no say.

D.C. residents can empathize with this, as they have no voting power in Congress. This despite paying federal taxes and having a population as large as the state of Wyoming. They are constantly reminded of this fact, because their license plates bare that revolutionary slogan, "No taxation without representation."