Columnist Razvan Sibii: Non-citizen residents should be able to vote in local elections

  • FILE PHOTORazvan Sibii FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/15/2022 8:59:30 AM
Modified: 8/15/2022 8:56:02 AM

It’s a simple, rock-solid democratic principle: If the laws of a community (especially taxation and policing) affect you and your family over a reasonably long period of time, you should be able to have a say in the political and administrative life of that community. In a town like Amherst, where non-citizens make up more than 10% of the population, it stands to reason that immigrants who haven’t yet been naturalized should be able to vote in local elections.

Before you ask, it’s perfectly constitutional to enfranchise non-citizens, and the Supreme Court has affirmed this multiple times. In 1996, Congress made it illegal for non-citizens to vote in federal elections. Some states’ constitutions explicitly tie voting in state elections to citizenship, while others don’t. At the local level, some states allow towns to decide for themselves who should be able to vote in municipal elections, others explicitly forbid towns from decoupling voting from citizenship, and yet others are ambiguous about the whole matter.

The “alien suffrage” passes the historical test, too. Non-naturalized immigrants voted across the United States, for all kinds of offices, from the earliest days of the republic till the 1920s. Admittedly, their vote was always contested by powerful political factions: first the slaveholders who feared that the “ethnic whites” coming to America would side with the abolitionists and the freed slaves, and then the conservatives who feared that Southern and Eastern Europeans would bring socialist ideas to American politics. The last state to drop the suffrage for non-citizens, Arkansas, did so in 1926.

Currently, 15 jurisdictions allow non-citizens to vote in some local elections: 11 towns in Maryland, two in Vermont, and the cities of San Francisco and Chicago (both of whom allow non-citizen parents to vote in school board elections). Last December, New York City approved a measure allowing legally-documented non-citizens to vote in all municipal elections, but a State Supreme Court justice struck it down just last month. The decision is being appealed.

Amherst, too, has tried at least four times in recent decades to enfranchise its thousands of residents who are not U.S. citizens. Like other Massachusetts communities, however, it has hit a wall in the state Legislature and the governor’s office, both of whom have to approve the petition. The goodwill in Amherst has yet to translate into goodwill in Boston.

Most “alien suffrage” initiatives target permanent residents (“green carders”), of whom there are roughly 12.3 million in the U.S. Their everyday lives are virtually indistinguishable from those of citizens, but they don’t have a say in who represents them and how their taxes are spent. Most are eligible for naturalization, but they do not take the final step because the procedure is expensive, because their country of birth might not accept dual citizenship, or because they would not be able to pass the English language test (which is not required for the Green Card, but is for naturalization).

Those who oppose the suffrage argue that green carders who fail to close the deal have simply not shown enough commitment to America to deserve the vote. On the other hand, those who argue in favor of the suffrage say that giving permanent residents the right to vote would actually make them more invested in local governance.

This was certainly the case for ShaliniBahl-Milne, the only immigrant currently serving on the Amherst Town Council, who told me that she started paying attention to local issues only after she became a citizen.

“When you’re not voting, you don’t have a sense of belonging in that town. You’re just living there, doing your thing, going to school or making money. Then, when I became a citizen, I thought, ‘Oh, now I need to know what I’m voting on.’ At the time, Amherst was transitioning from the Town Meeting to the Town Council. Once I studied the issue, I became a volunteer. I became interested in educating my neighbors,” she recounted. “Then the Town Council happened, and they were looking for people to run. A lot of people suggested my name because they saw that I was a new voice, an immigrant. I provided a different perspective. I feel that because I became part of the local government, this is the first time as an immigrant that I have felt a sense of belonging.”

Indeed, local government officials tend to recognize that dynamic, too, says Abigail Fisher Williamson, associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Connecticut.

“Appointed officials are proactively welcoming immigrants even before immigrants have had the chance to develop civic mobilization,” Williamson said. “Despite everything that the Trump administration tried to do to get cities to fall in line, they really didn’t. There were more places that came out and said, ‘We’re going to be a sanctuary city now!’ In that sense, the federal government doesn’t seem to be able to tamp down the local energy.”

If small towns like Amherst and big cities like New York continue to harness that “local energy,” many blue states in the 21st century might finally embrace the blessings of tradition and return the suffrage to their non-citizen residents.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.

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