New York City council member Ydanis Rodríguez has proposed allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections. Other cities have already passed such measures. Montpelier, Vermont, has authorized it; so have San Francisco and nine cities in Maryland. Nevertheless, New York should not proceed. This is a deeply flawed idea.
The very process of attaining citizenship is designed to help one become the type of informed voter on which democracy relies. The citizenship test is offered only in English; learning the language is one of the keys to entering the American mainstream. The test also requires a familiarity with the Constitution and American history, including questions on the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and even such matters as the definition of the “rule of law.”
Granting non-citizens the right to vote in federal elections is an even worse idea—one that would just add to the flaws in our voting system, which apportions congressional districts based on population, not the number of citizens. Thus districts with large numbers of non-citizens and illegal immigrants can have far fewer voters than other districts with roughly equal numbers of residents. Elected officials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Grace Meng, and Nydia Velázquez represent fewer potential voters than key House Republicans.
Census Bureau figures tell the story. The bureau compares the number of votes cast in a congressional district with what it calls the “citizen voting age population.” That’s one way of establishing that some congressional districts have more eligible voters than others. We don’t know exactly how many are citizens because the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from including a citizenship question on the Census, as was once common practice. But we can still learn a lot, thanks to questions included in the American Community Survey, a population sample not as complete as the Census.
In AOC’s 14th district in New York, some 146,000 votes were cast out of an estimated 392,000 eligible citizens in the 2018 election. In House Republican Jim Jordan’s fourth congressional district in Ohio, by comparison, 257,000 votes were cast by 542,000 eligible voters. Similar figures hold for Grace Meng’s sixth New York district (149,000 votes from an estimated 446,000 eligible) and Nydia Velázquez’s seventh district (164,000 votes from 446,000 eligible). House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s 23rd district in California saw 205,000 votes cast among 490,000 eligible.
The British have a term for districts with few eligible voters: rotten boroughs. It’s not a stretch to say that AOC and others simply represent fewer voters. These Progressive rotten boroughs are sadly reminiscent of pre-Voting Rights Act Alabama state government, in which “Black Belt” counties had disproportionate representation based on their population figures alone—despite the fact that the majority of their citizens could not exercise the franchise. One could argue that this should encourage us to allow non-citizens to vote, since doing so would level the playing field by forcing all candidates to compete in districts with similar numbers of eligible voters, as well as resolve the status of immigrants like those in AOC’s district who are taxed without representation. But allowing non-citizens to vote would run counter to our history of welcoming immigrants while also encouraging their Americanization. This arrangement isn’t some sort of kulturkampf against immigrants. On the contrary, it has made it possible for anyone, of any background, to call themselves Americans and be accepted as such.
President Trump was not wrong to want the Census to find out who is a citizen. This information could have been a first step in apportioning congressional representation based on eligible voters rather than on population, though making that change would require an amendment to the Constitution.
For now, the right way to bring non-citizens into the electoral process at the federal, state, and local levels is old-fashioned: encourage them to become citizens. One step we could take to facilitate this process is to eliminate the $800 fee charged for the citizenship test. In an immigrant household of husband, wife, and foreign-born children, the fees would quickly add up and pose a significant barrier. Eliminating this charge could be part of a bipartisan effort that includes expanding “test prep” for the naturalization exam. Unless Democrats prefer a system in which many elected officials represent those whose votes are “suppressed” by non-citizen status, they should support these changes. Republicans, meantime, could get behind these reforms to help ensure a truly level playing field for those seeking election to Congress. And all Americans would back an effort to ensure that newcomers understand and appreciate the institutions of the country they have joined.
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