New York City’s political leaders are prepared to extend the franchise to noncitizens by creating a new class of persons called “municipal voters.” These new voters would include Legal Permanent Residents—LPRs, known familiarly as “green card” holders—and other noncitizens “authorized to work in the United States.” Municipal voters would be permitted to vote in all local elections, including primary, general, and special elections for mayor, public advocate, comptroller, city council, borough president, and in local ballot initiatives. They would not be permitted to cast ballots in state or federal elections.
About 37 percent of New York City residents were born abroad. The majority of these more than 3 million people are naturalized citizens, entitled to vote in any election, assuming they meet the requirements of being 18 years old and not currently in prison or on parole. The “municipal voter” legislation would apply to the 650,000 LPRs in New York City and approximately 150,000 others who hold employment-eligible visas, or who have received “deferred action” status under DACA.
New York City has about 5.6 million registered voters, 90 percent of whom are considered “active.” Expanding the rolls by another 800,000 voters would potentially create a major new voting bloc, though it is not clear that these voters would be especially motivated to go to the polls. Voter turnout in New York City, especially in local elections, is extraordinarily thin, with typically less than 20 percent of registered voters bothering to take the trouble; one imagines that noncitizens would have even less engagement in the process. The effects on some council races, however, could be meaningful: the noncitizen population is distributed unequally around the city, so districts in parts of Queens or the Bronx with populations more than 50 percent noncitizen could see a much greater impact than other areas of the city with higher concentrations of citizens.
Allowing noncitizens to vote was normal in the early years of the American republic, though New York State ended the practice in 1804. Arkansas was the last state to abolish alien voting in 1926. In the wake of the 1968 teachers’ strike, New York City opened voting for local school boards to all residents, on the premise that noncitizen parents of schoolchildren ought to have a say in how their schools were run. But school boards were abolished in 2002, when direct control of the Department of Education was concentrated under the mayor, and the city’s experiment with noncitizen voting ended then, too.
Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, sponsor of the current legislation, which is scheduled for a vote in early December, argues that enfranchising noncitizens is “not about doing a favor to immigrants by allowing them to vote. If they pay their taxes as I did when I had a green card, then they should have a right to elect their local leaders.” This argument, based on the principle of taxation requiring representation, has a certain facile appeal. But if paying taxes is the basis for the franchise, then why has Rodriguez limited his bill to legal permanent residents? An earlier version of the legislation, from 2013, would have given the vote to illegal aliens, too—the same argument about taxes was made then, given that some of these people, typically using stolen Social Security numbers, pay income and payroll taxes. If they contribute, shouldn’t they be allowed to vote, too?
A major problem with this argument, for a leftist electorate, is that it establishes the payment of taxes as a precondition for voting, on grounds that only those contributing to the public treasury should have a say in spending it. John Stuart Mill articulated this point in 1859, explaining that “those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize.” More familiarly—and infamously—Mitt Romney made a version of this argument in 2012, when he dismissed the 47 percent of the electorate that was “dependent upon government,” and “who pay no income tax,” and thus would never support him.
Creating a new class of “municipal voter” is asking for trouble. The city Board of Elections is notoriously clumsy and inefficient, and it must count itself lucky that New York City rarely has high turnout or close elections that would expose just how bad it really is at its job. Municipal elections are held in off years, so there would be no overlap with federal elections, but they would coincide with some state-level votes, and they could create the opportunity for fraud, or at least major confusion.
Noncitizen voting will surely pass the city council and will probably be signed into law—but it so blatantly contravenes the New York State Constitution that it will almost certainly fail in the courts. New York’s constitution clearly states that “Every citizen shall be entitled to vote at every election for all officers elected by the people and upon all questions submitted to the vote of the people provided that such citizen is eighteen years of age or over and shall have been a resident of this state, and of the county, city, or village for thirty days next preceding an election.” The bill’s advocates insist that this language does not prohibit noncitizen voting, but it seems probable that the section’s wording would need to be amended—a complex process involving approval by two successive legislatures and then a statewide referendum.
Voting in a modern democracy is tied to citizenship and the duties and rights that attend it, which is why the franchise is generally limited to those people who have established, either by birth or oath, a deep connection to the nation. Authorizing noncitizen voting would devalue citizenship, a bedrock of American life. Advocates may genuinely believe that it will enhance democracy—or they may have other agendas. In any case, by dulling the meaning of American self-governance, noncitizen voting is effectively anti-democratic.
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