NEW YORK – New York City, long a beacon for immigrants, is on the cusp of becoming the largest places in the country to give noncitizens the right to vote in local elections.
Legally documented, voting-age noncitizens comprise nearly one in nine of the city's 7 million voting-age inhabitants. Under a bill nearing approval, some 800,000 noncitizens would be allowed to cast ballots in elections to pick the mayor, City Council members and other municipal officeholders
Noncitizens still wouldn't be able to vote for president or members of Congress in federal races, or in the state elections that pick the governor, judges and legislators.
Little stands in the way of the effort becoming law. The measure has broad support within the City Council, which is expected to ratify the proposal Thursday. Mayor Bill de Blasio has raised concerns about the wisdom and legality of the legislation, but said he won't veto it.
The law would give an electoral voice to the many New Yorkers who love the city and have made it their permanent home, but can’t easily become U.S. citizens or would rather remain citizens of their home nations for various reasons.
It would also cover “Dreamers" like Eva Santos, 32, who was brought to the U.S. by her parents at age 11 as an unauthorized immigrant, but wasn't able to vote like her friends or go to college when she turned 18.
“It was really hard for me to see how my other friends were able to make decisions for their future, and I couldn’t,” said Santos, now a community organizer.
More than a dozen communities across the United States currently allow noncitizens to vote, including 11 towns in Maryland and two in Vermont.
San Francisco, through a ballot initiative ratified by voters in 2016, began allowing noncitizens to vote in school board elections — which was also true in New York City until it abolished its boards in 2002 and gave control of schools to the mayor.
The move in Democrat-controlled New York City is a counterpoint to restrictions being enacted in some states, where Republicans have espoused unsupported claims of rampant fraud by noncitizens in federal elections.
Last year, voters in Alabama, Colorado and Florida ratified measures specifying that only U.S. citizens can vote, joining Arizona and North Dakota in adopting rules that would preempt any attempts to pass laws like the one being considered in New York City.
“I think that there’s people in our society that go to sleep with so much fear of immigrants that they try to make an argument to disqualify their right to elect their local leaders,” said New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who is originally from the Dominican Republic and was unable to vote until he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“This is about whether we are living in New York City, we are contributing to New York City and paying taxes in New York City,” said Rodriguez, a Democrat.
De Blasio, though, has questioned whether the measure would survive a legal challenge. Federal law allows states and local governments to decide who can vote in their elections, but some, including the mayor, have raised concerns about whether state lawmakers must first act to grant the city the authority to extend voting rights to noncitizens.
“Look, there’s obviously an argument: We want people involved, we want to hear people’s voices,” de Blasio recently said on the television news program “Inside City Hall.”
“I still have a concern about it. Citizenship has an extraordinary value. People work so hard for it,” he said. “We need people in every good way to want to be citizens.”
The minority leader of the City Council, Joseph Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island, said the measure will undoubtedly end up in court.
“It devalues citizenship, and citizenship is the standard by which the state constitution issues or allows for suffrage in New York state elections at all levels,” Borelli said.
The proposal would allow noncitizens who have been lawful permanent residents of the city for at least 30 days, as well as those authorized to work in the U.S., including so-called “Dreamers,” to help select the city’s mayor, city council members, borough presidents, comptroller and public advocate.
The law would direct the Board of Elections to draw up an implementation plan by July, including voter registration rules and provisions that would create separate ballots for municipal races to prevent noncitizens from casting ballots in federal and state contests. Noncitizens wouldn't be allowed to vote until elections in 2023.
Giving nonresidents the right to vote could empower them to become a political force that can’t be easily ignored, said Anu Joshi, the vice president of policy of the New York Immigration Coalition.
New York City, with more than 3 million foreign-born residents, would be a fitting place to anchor a national movement to expand immigrant voting rights, said Ron Hayduk, now a professor of political science at San Francisco State University but who spent years in New York steeped in the movement for noncitizen voting rights.
“New York, the home of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, prides itself on being the place of immigration,” he noted. “So there’s this question of what’s the place of immigrants in our city — are they really New Yorkers, are they full New Yorkers in the sense of qualifying and deserving the power of the vote and to shape its political future?”
The answer should be a “resounding yes,” he said.