By Jeffery C. Mays and Annie Correal, NY Times
For decades, lawmakers and immigrant advocates in New York City have pushed for legislation that would allow legal residents who are not citizens to vote in municipal elections, a right they had in school board elections until the boards were abolished in the early 2000s.
Now city lawmakers are moving to make noncitizen voting a reality — over the objections of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The City Council is planning to approve a bill that would allow more than 800,000 noncitizen New Yorkers to register as members of political parties and vote in municipal elections, provided they are green card holders or have the right to work in the United States.
The measure is expected to be approved on Dec. 9 by a veto-proof margin. It would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, and would not apply to federal or state contests. But the measure raises longstanding questions about who should be allowed to participate in the country’s democratic process.
Supporters maintain that immigrants who reside in the city legally, pay taxes, send their children to public schools and rely on city services should have some say in who becomes mayor or represents them on the City Council.
Opponents say the bill would weaken the voting rights of citizens and discourage immigrants from trying to become citizens.
Mr. de Blasio, speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, said he would not veto the legislation. But he expressed concern that the bill would undermine the “value of citizenship” if it dissuaded residents from seeking it. Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, also said he believes only the State Legislature can grant noncitizens the right to vote — a view many experts dispute.
A leading opponent, Joseph Borelli, a Republican councilman who represents Staten Island, went further, saying the bill would “weaken” citizens’ votes.
“Someone who has lived here for 30 days will have a say in how we raise our taxes, our debt and long-term pension liabilities,” he said. “These are things people who are temporary residents should not have a say in.”
The push to allow noncitizens to vote in New York City comes as an increasingly polarized country is dealing with a swath of new laws to restrict voting, as well as the economic problems caused by declining immigration.
Voters in Alabama, Colorado and Florida passed ballot measures last year stipulating that only U.S. citizens could vote, joining Arizona and North Dakota in specifying that noncitizens could not vote in state and local elections.
On the other side of the issue, several towns in Maryland and Vermont already grant noncitizens some municipal voting rights, and noncitizens can vote in school board elections in San Francisco. Other municipalities in California, Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts are weighing similar legislation.
“In the so-called blue states, we are moving toward expansion and that includes expansion of noncitizen voting,” said Joshua A. Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law who studies voting rights and election law. “In the so-called red places, you are moving toward more constrictions on the right to vote, which includes noncitizens. The whole world of voting rights has become one that is more polarized, even more than normal.”
At a rally outside City Hall on Tuesday, supporters of the bill hugged, choked back tears and chanted, “Yes, we can,” in Spanish as they shared stories of legal residents who felt left out of having a say over the city services their tax dollars helped finance.
“It’s important for the Democratic Party to look at New York City and see that when voting rights are being attacked, we are expanding voter participation,” said Ydanis Rodriguez, a councilman who is the bill’s prime sponsor and represents Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. Mr. Rodriguez is a former green card holder from the Dominican Republic who became a citizen in 2000.
Historians said that debates over the right of noncitizens to vote are as old as the country, and that into the 20th century, many states allowed the practice.
Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard and the author of “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States,” said that at the outset of the country’s history there was no link between citizenship and voting rights — voting rights were decided by states or municipalities, and citizenship was a federal government responsibility. The connection developed only gradually from the early 19th century onward, becoming “very tight” by the 1960s.
Dr. Keyssar said that the “basic tradition” around voting rights has been “an expectation that the right to vote will not be extended to people who will only be here a short time — but should be extended to people who plan to be here for a substantial period of time.” For that reason, he said, the move to extend voting rights to noncitizens by the City Council “does not undermine what has been the long tradition.”
Eric Foner, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and an expert in slavery and 19th-century America, said that historically politicians favored or opposed granting the right based on whether they thought it would benefit them in elections. Race was also a factor, as Black people were long denied the vote, along with Chinese people on the West Coast.
“A lot of this becomes connected to various prejudices and beliefs about who ought to be an American, who should have the right to vote, to be represented,” he said. “That was always being debated, and it’s still being debated now.”
The latest iteration of the New York City bill also extends the vote to people with work authorization, such as the so-called Dreamers — immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children but have been allowed to live and work here through a federal program known as DACA.
Of the estimated 808,000 adult New Yorkers who are lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, or have work authorization, about 130,000 are from the Dominican Republic; another 117,500 are from China, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. The bill requires that immigrants be residents of New York City for 30 days and otherwise eligible to vote under state law.
In spite of having a veto-proof majority of 34 out of 51 City Council members and the public advocate as co-sponsors, the legislation has not moved forward until now partly because of concerns about its legality.
But the Council’s legal staff determined that no federal or state law bars New York City from expanding the right to vote in local elections, though it also concluded that the bill might be vulnerable to challenge.
“Any restrictions that are currently on the books really only apply to federal and state elections,” said Anu Joshi, the vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization that represents hundreds of community-based immigrant and refugee groups.
Professor Douglas said that nothing in the New York State Constitution expressly prevents noncitizens from voting. The state explicitly confers voting rights to citizens but does not deny those rights to noncitizens.
But Ron Hayduk, a professor of politics at San Francisco State University and the author of “Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the U.S.,” said he anticipated the new law would spark a legal battle.
“Given that there are legal challenges in other places like Vermont, and that because immigration is such a hot-button issue, I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be a legal challenge” in New York, he said.
Eric Adams, the mayor-elect, has said that green card holders should have the right to participate in local elections and even urged the passage of the City Council legislation. But he has questioned whether the Council has the power to grant noncitizens the vote.
In a democracy, nothing is more fundamental than the right to vote.
Yet almost one million NYers are currently denied that right.
That’s why I’m proud to join the calls for the Council to #PassIntro1867
My testimony to the Council’s Cmte on Government Operations hearing today: pic.twitter.com/Isrnr1yKBP
— Eric Adams (@BKBoroHall) September 20, 2021
Evan Thies, a spokesman for Mr. Adams, said the new mayor will review the city law department’s analysis of the bill once he takes office in January.
If the legislation passes as expected, the New York City Board of Elections would issue a separate voter registration form for green card holders and other noncitizens who have the right to work. At the polls, those voters would fill out a ballot that only has New York City offices on it. The legislation calls for training poll workers and community education campaigns to ensure every voter receives the correct ballot.
The board has faced questions about its handling of elections in the past, most recently in June when it botched the rollout of the results of New York City’s first use of ranked-choice voting in a major election.
Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a spokeswoman for the elections board, said the agency “stands ready to implement the legislation” if “it is legal.”
Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said many noncitizens risked their lives during the pandemic working in groceries, restaurants and other vital industries and had earned the right to vote.
“This comes down to nook-and-cranny issues like trash and how the budget is spent,” he said. “These are things our community members have strong opinions about.”
Woojung Park, 22, is a DACA recipient and Hunter College student who lives in Queens and is an organizer at MinKwon Center for Community Action, a community organization in Flushing, Queens. Her parents, who brought her to the United States as an infant from South Korea, now run a nail salon in the Bronx.
The Asian American community in Flushing is facing a housing crisis, she said, with many people living in illegal or unsuitable conditions, some of them in basements that flooded after Hurricane Ida. Flushing’s residents are also contending with the lasting effects of a wave of xenophobia and hate crimes targeting Asian Americans during the pandemic.
“Being able to support Asian American candidates would definitely change the political atmosphere in Flushing,” Ms. Park said.