The Political Earthquake Coming to the City: Noncitizen Voting

A new bill could shake up local and national politics.

Photo: Atilgan Ozdil/Getty Images
Photo: Atilgan Ozdil/Getty Images

The idea of noncitizens voting can sound almost oxymoronic at first. It’s ingrained in us that this particular form of civic participation is the privilege of the citizen, and it’s one of the few functional distinctions from navigating life as a permanent resident. This hasn’t always been the case, though. States permitted noncitizen voting well into the 20th century, culminating finally with Arkansas enacting restrictions in 1926, and New York City public-school parents could vote for the school board, regardless of immigration status, as recently as 2003.

A new movement to restore these rights has picked up steam recently, with a couple of small cities in Vermont this summer becoming the latest to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. But a sea change could be coming thanks to a bill that would let noncitizens living in New York City vote in local elections. It would apply to those who have permanent residency or some type of legal status that grants work authorization, such as a work visa — an estimate that runs to about 900,000 New Yorkers, or larger than the population of San Francisco. Its success would not only break the dam for similar initiatives around the nation, but shift the relationship between New York political leaders and a huge chunk of their constituencies, empowering immigrant-heavy communities even as it sets off a new front in the nationwide battle over voting rights.

While the past efforts failed to succeed for one reason or another, this latest bill has 34 out of 51 City Council members signed on as sponsors (Speaker Corey Johnson isn’t committed either way) and the enthusiastic backing of advocacy groups like the New York Immigration Coalition. This support has garnered it a hearing before the full body likely sometime in late September, giving it a clear shot to land on outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s desk sometime this year.

De Blasio previously staked out opposition to the initiative, hazily stating that he was “not comfortable” with the plan due to “a number of specifics I can’t agree with.” Now, though, in the midst of his Summer of Bill, Hawaiian-shirt clad and looking to depart on a high note, it’s unlikely he’d wrap up his days at Gracie Mansion by vetoing a bill supported by a Council supermajority. If, for whatever reason, the bill doesn’t get signed before the turnover of the mayoralty and the majority of the City Council, its proponents believe it won’t have much trouble picking up support again under the new administration. It’ll presumably have the support of likely incoming Mayor Eric Adams, who threw his support behind the measure during the primary campaign, calling it a “moral and democratic responsibility” and stating that it was crucial in the effort to “continue to attract the global talent, energy, and entrepreneurship.” (Adams’s campaign did not respond to questions about his current position on the bill or the extent to which he’d push it.)

Logistically, registering noncitizen voters is a delicate proposition to begin with. While a number of much smaller municipalities have instituted similar programs, such as Maryland’s Takoma Park in 1992, and the courts have ruled that it’s perfectly legal for states and localities to permit noncitizen voting, no one disagrees that it remains very much illegal at the federal level. In fact, immigrants mistakenly registered to vote in federal elections don’t actually have to cast a ballot to face consequences; U.S. immigration law imposes serious penalties on false claims to U.S. citizenship, claims which generally have to be made in the process of registering to vote in federal elections. Ignorance or administrative errors generally don’t work as a legal defense, meaning permanent residents and visa holders could be deported for the simple act of filling out the wrong form or checking the wrong box, even if doing so at the instruction of city personnel, which raises some questions about whether the city’s ludicrously incompetent Board of Elections would be up to the task.

The text of the bill itself isn’t particularly detailed or extensive on the practicalities of implementation, either. Municipal enrollment forms would explicitly note that voters would only be eligible to vote in local elections, and staff would be trained on how to assist voters with registering. “If something goes wrong, who’s going to be on the hook for it? These are people’s lives, we can’t just just glibly say, ‘this is great, let’s do this,’ when the primary, something that [the BOE] should have been prepared for, something we all knew was coming, that rollout was done so poorly that state leaders are having hearings over it,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, the Asian American Federation’s executive director. While she’s supportive of the notion of noncitizen voting, she’s concerned about the notion of it being run by the city’s last real bastion of raw nepotism and favor-trading. In the last few years, the BOE has managed to erroneously purge 100,000 voters from the rolls, botch absentee ballot counting, mail incorrect absentee ballots, and, in this year’s municipal primary, accidentally count over 130,000 test ballots in preliminary tallies, alongside more mundane ineptitude running smooth elections.

Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s sponsor, downplayed such concerns. “I think that is a legitimate question about the infrastructure, but I would say the first thing that we need to address is: Is it a right or not for people who pay taxes to vote to elect their leaders? And the answer is yes. Then, after we address that question, then we can take care of the logistics,” he said, adding that the BOE shouldn’t really get a veto power over the legislation just because it is incompetent.

In terms of the opposition in the Council, it tends to be more ideological than logistical. Queens Council member Robert Holden — who left the Immigration Committee because he felt it was too far left — has somewhat bizarrely stated that allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections would be “inviting foreign influence,” as if not referring to people who have often lived in New York far longer than recent citizen arrivals who have no issue going to the ballot box. Staten Island Council member and Trump booster Joe Borrelli has insinuated that the measure is an attempt for current Democratic candidates to boost their own voter base, calling it a “political ploy.” It is probably true that extending the franchise to residents and visa holders could boost Democrats’ already substantial advantage in citywide elections and plenty of districts, though immigrant New Yorkers aren’t as monolithic as is sometimes imagined; Trump saw surging support in some heavily Latino pockets of the city in 2020.

What this shift in voter base might really achieve is an increase in the political firepower of immigrant-heavy neighborhoods like Washington Heights, Corona, Sunset Park, and others that are home to large standing populations of permanent residents, regardless of their political leanings. It’s not necessarily that the voter demographics or political viewpoints would fundamentally shift, but balloon in areas of the city that traditionally have had a harder time achieving political representation. Citywide candidates would presumably be forced to take more seriously the particular political preferences of specific immigrant constituencies; for example, the Dominican population’s preoccupation with dual-language education.

Particularly in the context of a nationwide GOP effort to restrict voting access even for U.S. citizens, there’s no scenario where the measure gets within striking distance of becoming law and avoids being subsumed into the broader culture war. One can easily imagine Tucker Carlson dedicating a segment to it, a continuation of his series of rants about how immigrants are hell-bent on shifting the political firmament to benefit their shadowy Democratic paymasters, a position just short enough of open white genocide rhetoric to give him plausible deniability. Yet local boosters wave that off as a predictable and ultimately irrelevant distraction, and even relish in the prospect of cultural combat. “What we do want to focus on is really being the vanguard,” said the NYIC’s Moore, pointing out that other local initiatives like municipal ID cards and a managed-care municipal health-care program are being used as templates for other localities.

Advocates have often invoked the foundational American idea of no taxation without representation to push for the measure, a powerful emblem but one that raises the question of the other taxpayers who would remain left out: the undocumented. Early conversations around instituting a municipal noncitizen voting system included those without immigration status, but they were ultimately excluded in a bid to cobble together a sustainable coalition that could actually get the measure through. If and when this bill becomes law, advocates hope it can springboard a broader effort that might include everyone, even the undocumented. “The goal is to have as many people voting as possible,”  said Paul Westrick, the NYIC’s manager of democracy policy. “We see this as the first step, and then we want to go back and get the rest.”

The Political Earthquake Coming to NYC: Noncitizen Voting