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Noncitizens have the obligations of citizens-so why not the right to vote?

by Ron Hayduk on Apr 20, 2006

Ron Hayduk

The growing immigrant rights movement has brought immigrants' struggle for political power center stage. The way to give non-citizens more political power would be to give them the vote. But voting is only for citizens, right? Not really.

Although it's not widely known, noncitizen voting is as old as the Republic itself and as American as apple pie and baseball. Noncitizens voted from 1776 until 1926 in forty states and federal territories in local, state and even federal elections. Noncitizens also held public office. In a country where "no taxation without representation" was a rallying cry for revolution, such a proposition was not far-fetched. It was common sense that government should rest on the consent of the governed. The idea that noncitizens should have the vote is older, was practiced longer, and is more consistent with democratic ideals than the idea that they should not.

Historically, voting and citizenship worked both ways. The right to vote has never been intrinsically tied to citizenship, which is why women and African Americans — who were citizens — were widely denied the vote until 1920 and 1965, respectively. Voting has always been about who has a say and who will have influence over the actions of government.

This historical precedent is making a comeback in some circles today. Currently, noncitizens vote in local elections in six towns in Maryland and in Chicago school elections. Over the past decade, noncitizen voting campaigns have been launched in at least a dozen jurisdictions from coast to coast, including Washington D.C., California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, North Carolina, Colorado, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Most recently, New York City Council members submitted a bill that would grant the right to vote to legal noncitizens in all local elections. This legislation is gaining significant support and is feeding another avenue of debate about the newcomers, the nature of citizenship, and the future of democracy in America.

Non-citizens work in every sector of the economy, own homes and businesses, attend colleges and send children to schools, pay billions in taxes each year and make countless social and cultural contributions. They're subject to all the laws that govern citizens, serve in the military and die defending the United States.

Their numbers are staggering. Nationally, about 23 million adults are barred from voting because they lack U.S. citizenship. In some districts — and whole cities and towns — non-citizens make up 25 to 50 percentÊ of all voting-age residents. Adult non-citizens in Los Angeles make up more than a third of the voting-age population; in New York City, they're 22 percent of adults. In many places immigrant political exclusion approximates the level of disenfranchisement associated with women prior to 1920 and African Americans before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Discriminatory public policy and private practices — in employment, housing, education, healthcare, welfare and criminal justice — are the inevitable by-products of immigrant political exclusion, not to mention racial profiling, xenophobic hate crimes and arbitrary detention and deportation. Non-citizens suffer social and economic inequities, in part because policy-makers can ignore their interests. Denying immigrants local voting rights makes government officials less accountable and undermines the legitimacy of public policies. Immigrant voting rights would help reverse inequities and make the American political system more democratic.

Most immigrants want to become U.S. citizens, but the naturalization process can take eight to ten years. That's more than the cycle for two-term mayors, governors and state and local representatives. Moreover, not all immigrants are eligible to become U.S. citizens, unlike earlier times when nearly every immigrant could naturalize.

Advocates of noncitizen voting support opening up the naturalization process and creating new pathways to citizenship. Noncitizen voting would facilitate civic education and participation and better prepare incipient Americans for eventual citizenship. This burgeoning movement to create a truly universal suffrage calls forth America's past and future as an immigrant nation.

The right to vote ensures that American democracy is inclusive and fair. Extending the right to vote to noncitizens would help keep government representative, responsive and accountable to all. It would not only restore a tried and true American practice but would also update our democracy for these global times. The immigrant rights movement is today's civil rights movement and noncitizen voting is the suffrage movement of our time.

Ron Hayduk, a writer for History News Service, teaches political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY) and is the author of "Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States."