After coming up repeatedly during the Democratic mayoral primary, a bill to enfranchise noncitizens in New York City elections appears to be within close reach.
Since 2005, activists in the city have been working to extend the right to vote in local elections to noncitizens. Though there were prior legislative attempts in 2009 and 2013, those efforts never commanded as much political momentum.
But in June, the latest iteration of the bill — reintroduced last winter by New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodríguez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic — received its 34th co-sponsor, giving it a supermajority on the 51-member council. The legislation, while limited to permanent residents and those with work authorizations — meaning those with Temporary Protected Status or in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — would enfranchise some 900,000 New Yorkers. If passed, the bill would offer a significant boon to a growing national movement around expanding ballot access to immigrants.
Under council rules, bills with supermajority support are guaranteed a public hearing within 60 days. No hearing is yet scheduled, but activists say they’re working to get something on the calendar. “60 days would put us around August 9, and typically the city council doesn’t meet for hearings in July or August but the rules are the rules so we’re in conversation with the Speaker [Corey Johnson’s] office,” said Paul Westrick, the manager of democracy policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, which is organizing for the bill. The legislative season ends in December, so activists plan to ramp up pressure over the next six months.
Advocates say they already have sizable public backing. One poll conducted this year by the left-leaning firm Change Research found 65 percent of respondents supported the measure. Another Change Research poll from last year found support among New Yorkers was higher when voters learned how many immigrants would be impacted by the bill. “It seems like less of a special privilege given to the few as opposed to a large group of people living in New York City,” concluded the pollsters.
Westrick told The Intercept that they’ve been reminding community members that New York City is a “quintessential city of immigrants” — many of whom have been “quite literally risking their lives to keep the city running and healthy” during the coronavirus pandemic — and that the bill would enfranchise nearly a million New Yorkers to vote. “That really helped people understand how many others were shut out of the voting process,” he said.
Across the U.S., political leaders are having renewed discussions about expanding — and in many cases, restricting — noncitizen voting.
The practice was once common at the local, state, and even federal levels. For the first 150 years of American history, white male property owners, regardless of citizenship status, were permitted to vote. As political scientist Ron Hayduk and anthropologist Kathleen Coll have documented in the journal New Political Science, voting was used as a tactic to foster civic attachment among the new white Christian men who came to the country during the 17th and 18th centuries and to entice them to occupy Native lands.
But hostility toward foreigners increased during and after the War of 1812, and some states began to restrict noncitizen voting. Another wave of nativist sentiment preceded World War I, leading to even more states eliminating the practice. Arkansas became the final state to end noncitizen voting in 1926, though noncitizens weren’t officially banned from voting in federal elections until 1996, when Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
New York City was actually the first jurisdiction to bring the practice back. In 1968, as a concession during the city’s fight over “community control” of schools — a struggle to hold schools accountable by empowering parent representatives — New York granted noncitizens the right to vote in school board elections. Noncitizens voted in those contests until 2002, when the city switched to mayoral control and abolished its elected school board.
After New York City trailblazed on school board voting, Chicago followed suit about three decades later, and San Francisco in 2016. Ten cities in Maryland also allow noncitizen voting for elections including city council and mayor, and more recently voters in two Vermont cities — Montpelier and Winooski — approved measures to enfranchise any resident over 18. “People always glom onto the idea that you have to earn our right to vote by becoming a citizen,” Winooski’s bill sponsor, state Rep. Hal Colson, told Stateline. “I just don’t buy that. We’re talking about a large chunk of the community that’s closed off.”
Other states have been actively pushing back against noncitizen voting. Four states — Colorado, Florida, North Dakota, and Alabama — passed ballot amendments in the last few years to clarify in their state constitutions that only U.S. citizens can vote. And in 2018, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., introduced a nonbinding resolution in Congress condemning noncitizen voting, which passed with 279 votes in favor.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Councilmember Brianne Nadeau recently reintroduced a bill to extend voting rights to green card holders, a legislative effort that has failed four times over the last decade.
D.C. Council’s bill currently lacks the kind of majority support among elected officials that the legislation in New York has. And the five-person Judiciary and Public Safety Committee that has jurisdiction to move it forward so far only has two co-sponsors — Charles Allen and Brooke Pinto — and needs a majority to advance. Of the remaining committee members, Mary Cheh declined to comment, and Vincent Gray and Anita Bonds did not return requests for comment.
Allen, the committee chair, told The Intercept he plans to hold a hearing on the issue and hopes that helps change the minds of his colleagues. “We have this thing in D.C. about taxation without representation,” he said. “We wouldn’t be the first place to do it, and I think it’s the right thing to do. And I don’t think we have to have New York do it first.”
In New York, the pro-enfranchisement faction has not just a veto-proof majority on the city council, but also support from the presumptive next mayor, Eric Adams, who would have power to veto. “We cannot be a beacon to the world and continue to attract the global talent, energy and entrepreneurship that has allowed our city to thrive for centuries if we do not give immigrants a vote in how this city is run and what our priorities are for the future,” Adams told New York Daily News in February.
In the meantime, activists will keep beating the voting reform drum. Hina Naveed, a 31-year-old registered nurse and recent law school graduate, is one of the hundreds of thousands who would receive the right to vote under Rodriguez’s bill. As a DACA recipient, she has a permit to work legally in the country but has no pathway to citizenship.
This summer Naveed has been working as a campaign manager for a Staten Island borough president candidate, and as she’s met with immigrant households, she’s been educating them about the noncitizen voting bill. “Every single person was so excited,” she told The Intercept. “The idea of being able to vote and have their voices heard was just so phenomenal.”