The Voting-Rights Debate Democrats Don’t Want to Have

A progressive law in the nation’s largest city seems to be a step too far for national Democrats.

A black-and-white photograph of ballots and a Vote NYC sticker
Mary Altaffer / AP

Last week was a momentous one for voting rights in America, and not just because of President Joe Biden’s urgent (if unsuccessful) plea for Congress to pass legislation protecting access to the ballot. More than 800,000 people in New York City gained the right to vote with the enactment of a new law allowing legal noncitizens to participate in municipal elections.

The law represents one of the biggest single expansions of voting rights in recent years, as well as an enormous victory for immigrants in the nation’s largest city. But Americans didn’t hear about it in Biden’s speech in Atlanta. Nor would they know about it from listening to congressional Democratic leaders who have championed both the party’s election overhaul and liberal treatment of immigrants. Indeed, few prominent Democrats seem interested in discussing New York City’s law at all; over the past two weeks, I asked a range of party leaders—members of the city’s congressional delegation, the chairs of the congressional Hispanic, Black, and Asian American and Pacific Islander caucuses, the White House—to weigh in on the law and whether immigrant voting rights should be a topic of national debate. Hardly any would agree (or, officially, make time in their busy schedules) to speak on the issue.

Although Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, the fourth-ranking House Democrat and a potential future speaker, has publicly backed the measure, other well-known New York Democrats, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have said nothing about it.

The new law represents one of the starkest recent examples of the bifurcated policies on voting and immigration that have emanated from states and cities in the absence of action on each issue by Congress. As Republican-led governments have restricted access to the ballot and the rights of immigrants, Democratic strongholds have moved aggressively in the other direction. (The New York law applies only to people who have legal status in the U.S. and have resided in the city for at least 30 days. It does not confer voting rights to undocumented immigrants.)

“We believe that New York needs to lead the way in this moment to demonstrate that while folks are trying to limit our democracy, we’re trying to expand it,” Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told me.

National Democrats often applaud efforts such as the expansion of mail balloting in blue states and allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Their silence on New York City’s immigrant-voting law, however, likely reflects an ambivalence by the city’s own leadership and national advocates for immigration reform about both the political wisdom of the policy and its constitutionality.

“It is a fraught debate,” Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at New York University’s Migration Policy Institute, told me. “It has actually gotten less introspection in New York City than it deserves, and I think part of it is that it is politically incorrect to raise doubts about anything that on its face looks pro-immigrant.”

Some advocates went even further, suggesting that by granting so many foreign-born residents a benefit reserved for citizens, New York City’s progressive lawmakers were endangering immigrants who could be subject to even more severe restrictions imposed by reactionary Republicans elsewhere. “They are putting at real risk the lives and the livelihoods of immigrants, documented or not, in more conservative parts of the country,” Ali Noorani, the president of the National Immigration Forum, told me. “I worry that this decision by New York City will lead people to take revenge on the immigrants that live in their communities.”

For such a historic advance in voting rights, the New York law’s final enactment was anticlimactic, even a bit awkward. Although the city council overwhelmingly approved the proposal, the part of its debate that drew the most attention was a speech in opposition by its Democratic majority leader, Laurie Cumbo, who suggested that the votes of immigrants would dilute the votes of Black New Yorkers and noted that Latinos voted in greater numbers for Donald Trump in 2020 than they had four years earlier. Outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio questioned whether the city had the power to grant noncitizens the right to vote but left the legislation for his successor, Eric Adams, to handle. Adams declined either to sign or veto the bill, allowing it to become law by default.

Republicans have not been nearly as shy about discussing the new law. The Republican National Committee, along with a number of GOP officials in New York, is suing the city, contending that the measure violates state law and New York’s constitution. “Only American citizens should decide the outcome of American elections,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted. The city’s lone Republican member of Congress, Representative Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island, has joined the lawsuit. Her likely opponent in the fall, former Democratic Representative Max Rose, declined my interview request.

The liberal case for allowing noncitizens to vote is fairly straightforward: People who live, work, and pay taxes in a community, the argument goes, should have a say in how it’s governed. Federal law now prohibits noncitizens from voting in elections for Congress or president, but most states granted voting rights to noncitizens for much of the country’s early history, and a few states allowed them to cast ballots well into the 20th century. For that reason, proponents of the idea like to say that they’re not granting voting rights to noncitizens, but restoring them. About a dozen towns and small cities—most of them in Maryland and Massachusetts—allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections. Chicago and San Francisco permit noncitizens to participate in school-board elections.

In today’s politics, where Republicans have repeatedly blocked comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress and weaponized hostility toward foreigners in elections, the idea of noncitizen voting resides on the far edge of mainstream debate—if not well beyond it. Advocates who have lobbied lawmakers for nearly two decades to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants told me that the idea of extending voting rights to legal permanent residents had never entered the discussions about an overhaul of federal immigration laws. In an indication of how little debate the topic has generated, a poll conducted for The Atlantic by Leger found that one-quarter of all respondents had no opinion about whether noncitizens should be able to vote in local elections. In a separate question, a majority of respondents (53 percent) said that noncitizens should never be permitted to vote in elections in the U.S. Slightly more than one-quarter (27 percent) supported universal voting rights for legal noncitizens, while 20 percent said that they should be able to vote only in local elections.

In an op-ed last month, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (now a Democrat although he was first elected as a Republican) offered what he called “a pro-immigrant case against noncitizen voting.” He wrote that the proposal “devalues citizenship” and that reformers should keep their focus on easing the path to citizenship for immigrants rather than bestowing on them its biggest benefit in advance. The noncitizens covered under New York City’s law will include legal permanent residents, those with work visas, and residents given legal status after they were brought into the U.S. illegally as children. They’ll be eligible to vote in local elections, such as for mayor and city council, beginning in 2023. But many advocates are skeptical that they’ll get that chance because of the possibility that the law will be struck down first. Proponents would have to argue that municipal elections are exempt from state election statutes specifying that “no person shall be qualified to register for and vote at any election unless he is a citizen of the United States.” “It’s clearly legally problematic,” Chishti said.

The politics of noncitizen voting are a big cause of concern for immigrant advocates, but not in the way people might expect. Republicans seem likely to use the New York law to attack their opponents in the midterm campaign, but Democrats don’t believe those attempts will be any more damaging than the controversies GOP candidates are already ginning up about immigrants and the southern border. “All they do is run on shame and fear and lie,” Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York told me. “So I don’t worry about that.”

Noorani’s main worry was that the tit-for-tat nature of the battle over immigrants could jeopardize marginalized communities in more conservative areas of the country. Another fear is that the logistical challenge of implementing and enforcing New York’s law could cause more political headaches than its passage. Noncitizen voting on the local level has occurred without much problem in small jurisdictions such as Takoma Park, Maryland, a progressive community outside Washington, D.C., where immigrants have been able to vote for mayor and city council since 1993. But until recently, Takoma Park held its municipal elections in separate years than elections for state and federal offices, and the number of noncitizen voters totaled about 100, the city clerk, Jessie Carpenter, told me.

New York City’s major municipal elections, such as its mayoral race, occur in odd years, but occasionally voters must decide citywide ballot measures alongside congressional, gubernatorial, or presidential races. In those years, the city’s Board of Elections—an institution not renowned for its administrative competence—must distribute separate ballots to noncitizen voters who could risk deportation if they mistakenly voted in a state or federal election. “Are we sending people to commit federal crimes?” asked Jeremy Robbins, the executive director of the American Immigration Council. Chishti said the situation presented a potential “nightmare,” warning that incidents of inadvertent voter fraud would play into the GOP’s otherwise weak argument about the integrity of elections in big Democratic cities. “You have to do a massive educational campaign to make sure that people are vigilant about not crossing that line,” he said.

When I spoke to Mireya Reith, an Arkansas-based co-chair of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, she was happy for New York and not particularly focused on the knotty details of implementing its immigrant-voting law. “We all celebrate that progress,” she told me, applauding the city for being “ahead of the curve.” The victories for immigrants that Reith touted on behalf of the local advocacy group she helped found, Arkansas United, were of an entirely different sort. The coalition had helped win passage of legislation increasing work and educational opportunities for immigrants in the conservative state while blocking more punitive proposals.

As for voting rights, the most optimistic view she could offer was that perhaps Arkansas would be ready for that conversation “a few years down the road.” The same, she said, was probably true of Washington. This week the Senate is poised to block, on a party-line vote, legislation aimed at protecting the rights of people already allowed to vote in the U.S. Any debate about providing ballots to those who aren’t is hard to envision anytime soon. “I don’t think you’re going to see this discussion nationally,” Reith said. “I’m not seeing that appetite.”