Understanding Voting Rights for Noncitizens

A busy NYC subway station with a sign that reads "NYC ELECTIONS WHO CAN VOTE" and two other small signs featuring up and down arrows that say "YES" and "NO"

On Dec. 9, the New York City Council is expected to approve a bill that allows legal residents who are not citizens to vote in municipal elections. When news stories began circulating about the soon-to-pass legislation, the reaction was sharp and swift. It spurred outrage from right-wing critics. Even Democrats, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), showed skepticism over a change that would add upwards of 800,000 new voters to the rolls in a city of 5.6 million registered voters.

In today’s piece, we cut through all the noise — we explain what the New York City law actually does, outline the status of noncitizen voting laws in other parts of the country and dive into the implications for democracy and representation.

Wait — I thought only citizens could vote? 

The U.S. Constitution does not confer any innate right to vote based on citizenship, but it does delegate the responsibility to manage elections to states. Currently, all states grant the right to vote to all citizens. However, at the founding of the country, states used that power to limit voting rights to property-owning white men. Later amendments to the Constitution ensured that states did not abridge the right to vote for citizens over the age of 18 on the basis of race or sex

Today, all 50 state constitutions mention citizenship when outlining voting rights in elections, often using language like “every citizen” or “all citizens.” Before 2020, only Arizona and North Dakota specified in their state constitutions that as opposed to citizens, noncitizens do not have the right to vote in either state or local elections (federal law prohibits noncitizens from voting in federal elections). Alabama, Colorado and Florida joined the list last year when voters approved ballot measures restricting the right to vote to citizens. In contrast, during the first 150 years of U.S history, 40 states allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state and federal elections at different points. Arkansas was the last state to repeal this practice in 1926.

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act which included a provision that made it a criminal offense for a noncitizen to vote in federal elections. Nonetheless, this Act did not outlaw states or municipalities from proactively permitting noncitizens to vote in local elections.

What is New York City proposing?

The New York City Council is set to approve a bill, Intro 1867, that allows legal permanent residents and those with work authorizations to vote in municipal elections and register as members of political parties. The work authorization category includes Dreamers, people enrolled in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), or people with Temporary Protected Status. An individual must be a resident of New York City for at least 30 days before the election to qualify as a municipal voter. Notably, Intro 1867 does not expand voting rights to all noncitizens — it does not include undocumented immigrants or people with short-term visas (tourists, for example). 

Intro 1867 authorizes qualified noncitizens to vote in municipal elections only. This means the new voters can take part in elections for New York City offices, including mayor, city council, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and local ballot measures. The noncitizen voters will not be eligible to vote in federal elections nor in statewide elections. 

Are there similar noncitizen voting laws elsewhere? 

Yes, but it’s not common. As of June 2021, 14 municipalities across the U.S. permit noncitizens to vote in local elections. 11 of these municipalities are in Maryland, two in Vermont and one in California. In 2016, voters in San Francisco approved Proposition N, which permits noncitizen parents of children in public schools to vote in school board elections. Most recently, two Vermont cities, including the capital Montpelier, changed their city charters to allow noncitizen residents to vote in local elections. While Gov. Phil Scott (R) vetoed the plan, the Democratic-controlled state Legislature overrode that veto. 

In New York City itself, noncitizen parents could vote in local school board elections from 1968 until 2003 when the city abolished its school boards.

Similar plans are under consideration in other states — in fact, several Massachusetts towns have passed resolutions, but the Bay State Legislature has yet to approve those changes. New York City would be — by far — the largest municipality to implement such a change, but there are ongoing discussions about parallel policies in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

What do these laws mean for our democracy?

Laws that expand voting rights to certain noncitizens are often inaccurately characterized by opponents, either in defining which noncitizens can vote or in what type of elections. Serious analyses of the new law still question its constitutionality, logistical implementation and impact on the value of citizenship. Opponents also express concern that such laws discourage residents from seeking citizenship, an apprehension that was raised by de Blasio.

Proponents disagree: “These are residents of our city who live here, work here, go to school here, raise families here, and pay taxes here. They deserve to have a say in the direction of our city,” writes the Our City, Our Vote campaign. The new municipal voters would be composed of parents who send their children to public schools and homeowners, renters and business owners who want a say in the neighborhood policies. It’s also worth noting noncitizens in New York City have been on the frontlines during the pandemic, keeping the city running and New Yorkers healthy. Additionally, legal residents are required to pay taxes, even if they are not citizens. In New York City, that amounts to billions of dollars per year of “taxation without representation.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a candidate in the 2021 election for New York county district attorney, also emphasized the long wait periods and administrative backlogs that lock residents out of the political process while waiting for their citizenship. “My dad was 30 years old when he came to this country,” Farhadian Weinstein writes. “Although my parents quickly got authorization to work here, my dad turned 45 before he became a citizen and could cast his first vote.”

In contrast to Republican voter suppression laws across the country, New York City is looking to expand voting rights and include more people in the political process. It is still a very rare step for a municipality to proactively implement, but nonetheless raises important questions about the country’s ideals of citizenship, representation and who gets a say in the policy that impacts everyday life.