The foreign-born population of the United States is now 33 million, or 11.8 percent of the total - the highest absolute level since the great wave of immigration that took place between 1880 and 1920. Today, many communities in New York, Florida, and California have immigrant populations of 40 percent or more.
Most of the estimated 12 million legal permanent residents cannot vote although they may work, pay taxes, send their children to school, and serve in the military. This gap between the electorate and the total population raises important issues about government accountability to residents who cannot vote, and the civic responsibilities newcomers are expected to assume toward their communities.
In response, several communities across the United States are seeking to grant non-citizen residents the right to vote in municipal and/or school board elections. Most Americans are unaware that non-citizen voting was widespread in the United States for the first 150 years of its history. From 1776 until 1926, 22 states and federal territories allowed non-citizens to vote in local, state, and even federal elections but gradually repealed this right. The U.S. Constitution gives states and municipalities the right to decide who is eligible to vote.
Non-citizen voting rights, however, were largely repealed due to the anti-immigrant sentiment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Civil War era, Southern states resented immigrants' opposition to slavery. In many states, wartime hysteria and the Red Scare after World War I made Americans want immigrants to "prove" their loyalty before receiving the privilege of voting. And in others - like Texas during the women's suffrage struggle - ending the immigrant vote was a way for political status quo supporters to counteract the broadened electorate that came with the 14th Amendment (voting rights for African-American men) and 19th Amendment (voting rights for women).
Today, the practice of non-citizen voting has spread to more than 20 countries around the world, including to communities in New Zealand, Chile, Israel, and all Member States of the European Union (see sidebar for complete listing). Non-citizen voting caught on in Europe in the 1960s as European unification and the growing number of guest workers prompted nations to think about ways to integrate mobile populations into their new communities.
Non-Citizen Voting in the U.S. Today
Where Can Non-Citizens Vote?
The U.S. Constitution allows non-citizen voting, and the practice is enjoying a revival in the United States. Non-citizen voting initiatives have been gaining in popularity, particularly since the early 1990s, when divisive riots in Washington, DC, and elsewhere convinced many community members that a more concerted effort to incorporate immigrants into civic life was needed. Non-citizen voting thus has been seen as a way to make sure unmet needs do not explode into unmanageable social problems. All of the initiatives so far have been in municipal or school board elections; none contemplate voting rights in federal elections.
San Francisco voters will decide in a November 2004 referendum whether or not to allow all non-citizen residents - including the undocumented - to vote in school board elections. Precedents for this include New York City, where non-citizens voted in school board elections from 1970 to 2003 (when school boards were dissolved as part of a recentralization effort), and Chicago, where non-citizens received school board voting rights in 1988.
In July 2004, the Washington, DC City Council introduced a bill to allow local non-citizen residents to vote in municipal elections; similar legislation is expected to be introduced in New York in November 2004. Both of these efforts have precedents in Takoma Park, Maryland, which in a 1991 non-binding referendum approved voting rights for non-citizen residents. Five other Maryland towns also permit non-citizens to vote.
Amherst and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have both passed non-citizen voting initiatives, which are awaiting state legislative approval. Another Massachusetts town, Newton, has launched an initiative of its own. Portland, Maine, is considering a municipal elections measure. A Minnesota state constitutional amendment was introduced in January 2003, but the initiative remains all but dormant.
Similar initiatives are in various stages in Connecticut, New Jersey, Colorado, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, as well as three cities in California - Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino. A bill was introduced in Texas in 1995 but died in committee.
All these jurisdictions have large non-citizen populations - ranging from about five percent to as much as 30 percent of the total adult population. They are composed of newcomers from Latin America, East and South Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Russia.
Arguments for and Against Non-Citizen Voting
Both historical and contemporary practices come from the same democratic principle: members of a community should have a stake in making decisions that affect that community. Yet, to many Americans, the idea is discomforting because of the strong belief, popular for most of the last century, that citizenship should precede voting.
Thus, the most common objection to non-citizen voting is that immigrants should only obtain voting rights by becoming citizens. As Rodolfo de la Garza, of Columbia University and the Tomas Rivera Institute, states: "Immigrants should become citizens and then vote. Otherwise you create the possibility of people voting who have no stake in society."
Supporters of non-citizen voting counter such statements by arguing that most immigrants intend to become U.S. citizens, but the cumbersome naturalization process has become a barrier. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Services has had a two-year backlog of naturalization applications in recent years; such delays increased after September 11, 2001, because of new security measures.
Supporters also maintain that non-citizen voting is a pathway to citizenship, not a substitute. They contend that non-citizen voting promotes civic education and participation among future Americans. In doing so, it encourages naturalization. For many immigrants, the biggest reason to hesitate before applying for citizenship is often emotional, not rational; many do not want to take the Oath of Allegiance until they "feel American."
The following issues are also frequently mentioned in regards to non-citizen voting.
Immigrants who become U.S. citizens are generally believed to be loyal to the United States. Until that moment, there could be doubt as to whether an individual would vote in the best interests of their local community or the best interests of other immigrants and possibly their home country. For example, non-citizens might be more likely to favor state public assistance to undocumented immigrants or permit bilingual instruction in the public schools. Naturalization, some say, proves an immigrant's commitment and loyalty to the U.S..
Yet, most immigrants are already members of their communities and assume all the other responsibilities of local citizenship. They already have an inherent interest in safe, clean streets, and services the community needs to survive.
In addition, non-citizens are not a homogeneous group. They may well have different interests, just as native citizens have different interests and vote accordingly. Some evidence from research on newly naturalized U.S. citizens and non-citizen voting in Europe suggests only modest shifts in the political balance of power, if any, would occur.
Another measure of loyalty is willingness to take up arms for the United States - a measure many non-citizens meet. All legal permanent residents must register for the Selective Service, and the U.S. military actively recruits immigrants. Green card holders who serve in the U.S. military have their waiting period for citizenship waived. Today, there are more than 70,000 foreign-born, including nearly 40,000 non-citizens, in the U.S. armed forces. Of the 1,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq through early September, at least 36 were foreign-born, and 10 were waiting for citizenship.
Preparation for voting
In a democracy, ideally all participants understand the election process, know the candidates and their positions, and make an educated choice. Non-citizens can lack sufficient familiarity with American political institutions and issues to make informed voting decisions. Newcomers may need more time in the United States before they understand the issues and the candidates.
However, if specific knowledge were a prerequisite for political participation, many native-born U.S. citizens would fail tests of even basic political knowledge, as survey research has consistently shown. More important, most voter "education" on campaign issues occurs in the months before an election, not years prior, in the form of media coverage and campaign commercials.
A concern with any type of election is electoral fraud, which includes ballot stuffing, bribery, registering false voters, voter intimidation, multiple votes by one person, and interference with vote counting. Non-citizen voting could open doors to electoral fraud by relaxing registration laws, thus making it easier for more people to vote and increasing turnout.
Yet there is no evidence to show that non-citizens' votes are more likely to be bought or sold than those of citizens. Furthermore, if non-citizens intend to commit vote fraud, they could do so without being able to vote legally.
To be sure, managing the simultaneous registration and voting of different classes of electors presents practical, administrative problems. Jurisdictions would have to determine whether voters must provide identification at poll sites and/or during the registration process, as well as whether to restrict voting to legally admitted non-citizens who have resided in a jurisdiction for a certain period of time.
The practice of non-citizen voting is as old as the United States. A growing number of countries and some American cities now allow all legal residents to participate in elections. Nonetheless, there remain significant tensions between those who support non-citizen voting and those who question its legitimacy and meaning.
The many initiatives being debated across the United States will build the body of knowledge on non-citizen voting. With an estimated 12 million votes potentially hanging in the balance, the results will be especially important for many U.S. communities and for those interested in voting as a tool for political incorporation.
Elise Brozovich (2002). "Prospects for Democratic Change: Non-Citizen Suffrage in America." Hamline Journal of Public Law & Policy 23: 403.
Virginia Harper-Ho (2000). "Noncitizen Voting Rights: The History, the Law and Current Prospects for Change." Law and Inequality Journal 18.
Ronald Hayduk (2002). "Non-Citizen Voting: Pipe Dream or Possibility." Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.
Jamin B. Raskin (1993). "Legal Aliens, Local Citizens: The Historical, Constitutional, and Theoretical Meanings of Alien Suffrage." University of Pennsylvania Law Review 141.
Chaleampon Ritthichai (2003). "Should Non-Citizens Be Allowed to Vote?" Gothamgazette.com Available online.
Deborah Sontag (1992). "Noncitizens and Right to Vote." New York Times, July 31 p. A1.
The Immigrant Voting Project. Available online.
The National Immigration Forum. Available online.
Louis DeSipio (2001). "Building America, One Person at a Time: Naturalization and Political Behavior of the Naturalized in Contemporary American Politics," in E Plurabus Unum?: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation, edited by Gary Gerstle and John Mollenkopf. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lorraine Minnite, Jennifer Holdaway and Ronald Hayduk (2001). "The Political Participation of Immigrants in New York" in In Defense of the Alien. Volume 23. New York: Center for Migration Studies.
Robert F. Worth (2004). "Push Is On to Give Legal Immigrants Vote in New York." New York Times, April 8.