Washington Post Examines Growing Push for Non-Citizen Local Voting Rights

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[Image courtesy of geygan]

I’ve covered the topic of legal non-citizen voting rights before, but a new story in the Washington Post pegged to the issue in D.C. is such a good summary that it’s worth sharing here. Check it out:

David Nolan and Helen Searls are a professional couple in the District, active in their children’s school and local civic associations. As taxpayers and longtime residents, they feel they have a duty to be involved in public life. But as legal immigrants who have not become U.S. citizens, they have no right to vote — even in local elections.

“It’s frustrating at election time to have no say in what’s happening,” said the British-born Searls, 54, who works at a media company. “Washington has people from all over the world. If they are engaged and participating in public issues, it benefits the city.”

Searls and Nolan are among 54,000 immigrants in the District — and about 12 million nationwide — who have been granted green cards that allow them to remain in the United States permanently. Most are sponsored by relatives or employers. They pay taxes and serve in the armed forces. Yet in all but a handful of localities, they have no voting rights.
Last month, for the third time in a decade, a bill was introduced in the D.C. Council to allow legal immigrants to vote locally. The measure has little chance of passage, but it is illustrative of a growing movement to expand local voting rights to noncitizens that has spawned similar proposals in several dozen communities across the country.

Despite the raging national debate over the prevalence of illegal non-citizen voting in state and federal elections, the truth is that local voting rights for non-citizens are part of the country’s not-so-distant past:

Proponents point out that noncitizen voting was the norm early in American history, when new regions needed people to populate them. It was abandoned only after spates of anti-foreign sentiment in the 1860s and 1920s. Proponents have not urged that immigrants be allowed to vote for president, which is against federal law; they want them to be permitted a political role in their communities …

In New York, home to about 1.3 million legal permanent residents, noncitizens were allowed to vote in school board elections from 1969 to 2003, when the board system was abolished.

As awareness of the role of immigrants in the community grows, so has the push to (re)establish voting rights in local elections. But opponents believe that voting is exclusively a right of citizens and that immigrants who wish to cast a ballot should be naturalized first:

[O]pponents assert that the right to vote at any level is a defining quality of citizenship. They say it should not be easily granted to the foreign-born, who might have divided loyalties and insufficient knowledge of American democracy. And they point out that any legal permanent resident can apply to become a U.S. citizen with full voting rights after a five-year wait.

“To be a voter is to signify that you have cleared hurdles and that you understand what it means to be an American, with responsibilities as well as rights,” said Carl Horowitz, president of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Falls Church, Va. Allowing noncitizens to vote, he said, “renders the idea of citizenship meaningless.”

There are also fears that opening up the franchise to legal non-residents will tilt the playing field toward Democrats – though the experience of communities that have it now suggest that non-citizen voters turn out at the same (low) rates as citizens:

[A]dvocates said the political impact of the noncitizen vote has often been marginal. In many cases, the impetus has come from liberal or civic groups, while the beneficiaries may be less enthusiastic or aware of the benefits.

The pioneering community was Takoma Park, which gave legal immigrants voting rights in a 1991 referendum. Sean Whittaker, 46, a Canadian-born engineer who lives there, said that being able to vote made him feel as if he truly belonged in the community. In the town’s most recent election, the district candidate he supported won by six votes. “Maybe I made a difference,” Whittaker said.

Since then, four other Maryland towns have approved similar policies, although noncitizens cannot vote in state elections. In 2012, Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County) sponsored a bill to ban noncitizens from voting in any Maryland locality, warning hyperbolically that even Osama bin Laden would have been allowed to vote in Takoma Park.

But the repercussions from Maryland’s experiment have been far from dire. Takoma Park officials say no more than a handful of immigrants have voted in any local election, where turnout is also generally low among citizens, too.

“This has not fulfilled either the worst predictions of critics nor the great hopes of supporters,” said state Sen. Jamin Raskin (D-Montgomery), a law professor who helped pave the legal path for the initiative. Still, he said, “it has remained an important statement of welcome, a way to give people a taste for the democratic process.”

If and when the U.S. expands to broader acceptance of local voting rights for legal non-citizens, it may make sense to examine how Europe manages its process given the variety of elections involved (European Union, national and local) and the high degree of legal immigration. Until then, it’s worth studying how communities like Takoma Park manage their voter lists to permit non-citizen local voting as a test case for the larger election community.

In light of the ferocity of the national debate on immigration, it’s unlikely that these pushes to expand non-citizen voting will move quickly if at all for the foreseeable future. Still, it’s an interesting question that’s worth pondering as we consider the degree of “belonging” necessary to cast a ballot in America’s communities.

Stay tuned.

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