New York Moves to Allow 800,000 Noncitizens to Vote in Local Elections

·6 min read

NEW YORK — New York City lawmakers are poised to allow more than 800,000 New Yorkers who are green card holders or have the legal right to work in the United States to vote in municipal elections and for local ballot initiatives.

The bill, known as “Our City, Our Vote,” would make New York City the largest municipality in the country to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.

The legislation, expected to be approved by the City Council on Dec. 9 by a veto-proof margin, comes as the country is dealing with a swath of new laws to impose voter restrictions, as well as the economic and demographic effects of a decline in immigration.

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Voters in Alabama, Colorado and Florida passed ballot measures last year specifying that only U.S. citizens could vote. The states joined Arizona and North Dakota in specifying that noncitizens could not vote in state and local elections.

“It’s important for the Democratic Party to look at New York City and see that when voting rights are being attacked, we are expanding voter participation,” said Ydanis Rodriguez, a councilman who sponsored the bill and represents Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.

The legislation, first introduced almost two years ago, is the culmination of more than a decade of work to gain local voting rights for some legal permanent residents. It also extends the right to those with work authorization, such as the "Dreamers," recipients of a program known as DACA that shields young immigrants brought into the country illegally from deportation and allows them to live and work here.

It was once more common for noncitizens to have voting rights in the United States, but the provisions were repealed around the turn of the 20th century as more immigrants arrived and popular sentiment changed.

Until school boards were disbanded nearly two decades ago, New York City was among the places that allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections, a right that exists in San Francisco. Several towns in Maryland and Vermont also grant noncitizens some municipal voting rights.

Of the estimated 808,000 adult New Yorkers who are lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, or have work authorization, about 130,000 are from the Dominican Republic; those from China represent another 117,500 people, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Those eligible must be residents of New York City for 30 days and otherwise eligible to vote under state law.

Despite having a veto-proof majority of 34 out of 51 City Council members and the public advocate co-sponsoring the bill, the legislation has not moved forward until now partly because of concerns about its legality. Mayor Bill de Blasio has contended that the change “has to be decided at state level, according to state law,” during a recent appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show.

The mayor also said he has “mixed feelings” about the bill because he feared that allowing noncitizens to vote might remove the incentive for people to become full citizens.

But the council’s legal staff, as well as voting rights experts, say that the bill is legal, and that no federal or state law bars New York City from expanding the right to vote in local elections.

“Any restrictions that are currently on the books really only apply to federal and state elections,” said Anu Joshi, the vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization that represents hundreds of community-based immigrant and refugee groups.

Joshua A. Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law who studies voting rights and election law, concurred, saying that nothing in the New York state Constitution expressly prevents noncitizens from voting. The state explicitly confers voting rights to citizens but does not deny those rights to noncitizens.

Eric Adams, the mayor-elect, has said he supports the legislation and believes that green card holders should have the right to participate in local elections.

If the legislation passes as expected, the New York City Board of Elections would issue a separate voter registration form for green card holders and other noncitizens who have the right to work. At the polls, those voters would fill out a ballot that only has New York City offices on it. The legislation calls for training poll workers and community education campaigns to ensure every voter receives the correct ballot.

The board has faced questions about its handling of elections in the past, most recently in June when it botched the rollout of the results of New York City’s first use of ranked choice voting.

New York’s passage of voting rights for noncitizens is sure to set off a wave of reaction to both expand and restrict voting rights, Douglas said.

“In the so-called blue states, we are moving toward expansion and that includes expansion of noncitizen voting,” Douglas said. “In the so-called red places, you are moving toward more constrictions on the right to vote, which includes noncitizens. The whole world of voting rights has become one that is more polarized, even more than normal.”

Supporters of the bill maintain that it is important for New York City to expand municipal voting, given the large percentage of the city’s population that resides legally in the country and pays taxes, but does not have citizenship and therefore cannot vote for local elected offices such as mayor, City Council, comptroller and public advocate.

Green card holders face difficult obstacles to becoming citizens, such as hefty fees and long application processing times. Rather than dissuade legal residents from becoming citizens, Rodriguez, the city councilman and a former green card holder who immigrated from the Dominican Republic and became a U.S. citizen in 2000, said that allowing legal residents to vote in local elections will induce more people to become citizens so that they can vote in federal elections.

Corey Johnson, the speaker of the City Council, said giving immigrants a “voice in our local elections” will “add New York City to a resounding national movement.”

“Immigrants have always been vital to the city, and during COVID they risked their lives to keep the city moving,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “This comes down to nook-and-cranny issues like trash and how the budget is spent. These are things our community members have strong opinions about.”

Woojung Park, 22, a DACA recipient, lives in Queens and is a student at Hunter College and an organizer at MinKwon Center for Community Action, a community organization in Flushing, Queens. Her parents, who brought her to the United States as an infant from South Korea, now run a nail salon in the Bronx.

The Asian American community in Flushing is facing a housing crisis, she said, with many people living in illegal or unsuitable living conditions, some of them in basements that flooded after Hurricane Ida. Flushing’s residents are also contending with the lasting effects of a wave of xenophobia and hate crimes targeting Asian Americans during the pandemic.

“This would dramatically alter that and allow us to start to be politically active,” Park said. “Being able to support Asian Americans candidates would definitely change the political atmosphere in Flushing.”

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