New York City Restores Local Voting Rights for Noncitizens

Els de Graauw (City University of New York)

As unfounded fears of widespread election fraud have fuelled a growing state-led movement to restrict voting rights in the United States, New York City officials recently adopted a law, Intro 1867, to expand local voting rights to long disenfranchised city residents. Intro 1867, also known as the “Our City, Our Vote” law, was adopted by a veto-proof majority of the New York City Council in December 2021, and the new Mayor Eric Adams allowed it to automatically become law in January 2022. It will give about 800,000 New Yorkers who are U.S. legal permanent residents (or “green card holders”) or who have valid (but temporary) U.S. work authorisation, such as so-called Dreamers temporarily protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the right to vote in municipal elections for New York City offices, including the city council, mayor, public advocate, and comptroller, as well as ballot initiatives, beginning in January 2023. Intro 1867 does not apply to the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the city, and it does not affect state and federal elections. Yet it constitutes the largest expansion of democracy in the city in 100 years, notably increasing the city rolls of 5.6 million registered voters.

The Ups and Downs of Noncitizen Voting in the United States

While New York City is now the largest U.S. city to extend local voting rights to immigrants, it is not the first, and noncitizen voting has deep and contentious roots in the United States. In the absence of any constitutional provision forbidding this, 40 states and territories allowed noncitizens to vote in elections at all levels of government during the first 150 years of the nation’s history (see Ron Hayduk’s book for a documentation of this fascinating history). Early on, with the U.S. territorial expansion westward and the need for cheap labour in America’s rapidly industrialising cities during the Civil War Reconstruction period, noncitizen voting was politically lucrative and often unquestioned, reaching a peak in 1875. However, with the massive influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants at the end of the 19th century, growing anti-immigrant and nativist sentiments caused more and more states to institute a citizenship criterion for voting. In 1926, shortly following the federal enactment of national origins quotas that would severely restrict new immigration until 1965, Arkansas was the last state to end the practice of noncitizen voting.

The 1996 passage of the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act barred noncitizens from voting in federal elections, making illegal voting a criminal offense punishable by fine, up to one year in prison, or both. It did not, however, address state and local elections. Demographic changes resulting from sustained mass migration since the 1990s, along with the growing number of both immigrant voters (and potential voters) and immigrant rights organisations, have fuelled contemporary campaigns for immigrant voting rights in efforts to make local government more representative, responsive, and accountable. Starting in the 1990s, but accelerating in the 2000s and beyond, a small but growing number of mostly progressive municipalities have expanded, or tried to expand, local voting rights to noncitizens. As of January 2022, 16 municipalities across the United States allow local noncitizen voting, at times only in school board elections. They include 11 municipalities in Maryland, two in Vermont, Chicago, San Francisco, and now New York City. Other contentious and unsuccessful campaigns have recently been waged in Burlington (Vermont) and Portland (Maine), among other places.

The Long Campaign for Noncitizen Voting in New York City

Intro 1867 is not the first time that noncitizens get local voting rights in New York City. Between 1969 and 2003, noncitizen parents of children in city schools – whether they were legal immigrants or not – could vote for, and serve on, one of 32 community school boards, which had power to hire superintendents and principals as well as to approve budgets. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg won control over the city’s vast public school system in 2002, however, the city’s elected school boards were abolished, and along with it local noncitizen voting. Soon thereafter, in 2004, a coalition of immigrant and civil rights organisations, labour unions, faith-based organisations, and other progressive groups formed to lobby City Council for a new noncitizen voting measure. Proposals to restore local voting rights to immigrant New Yorkers have been repeatedly before the Council since 2005, but none made it to a vote. These proposals enjoyed support from progressive Council members, some with immigrant backgrounds like John Liu (who supported a noncitizen voting bill back in 2004) and Ydanis Rodríguez (the chief sponsor of Intro 1867). However, recent mayors – notably Mayors Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio – have opposed them, either saying that voting rights should be reserved for U.S. citizens or questioning the proposed legislation’s legality.

Intro 1867 was first introduced in the City Council in January 2020, and a citywide coalition of 45 immigrant rights and advocacy organisations launched the Our City, Our Vote campaign to drum up wide support for it. While Democrats dominate the New York City Council, with just a handful of its 51 seats taken by Republicans, Council discussions about the legislation were notably heated. The many supporters on the Council underscored that restoring noncitizen voting rights would make the city stronger, also enabling it to realise the progressive vision of being a city for all New Yorkers. They also stated that Intro 1867 would finally correct the wrong of “taxation without representation,” as immigrants have long paid taxes without being able to elect local leaders whose policies affect their daily lives. Opponents on the other hand, who included Democratic Council members and representatives for Mayor de Blasio’s administration, believed the legislation to be unconstitutional, feared it would diminish the value of U.S. citizenship (though scholarship is inconclusive about whether granting local voting rights encourages or discourages immigrants’ propensity to naturalize), deplored giving voting rights to potentially uneducated voters, and even warned it could allow America’s enemies in China and Russia to influence local elections. In the end, Intro 1867 passed with a 33-14 vote, receiving no support from the four Republican Council members and with a few abstentions.

Expanding Urban Citizenship

New York City’s move to restore noncitizen voting rights is part of a larger set of initiatives that activist city officials, with ongoing pressure from community organisations, have developed in recent years to expand urban citizenship to the city’s many immigrant residents. One way they have done this is through services, by improving immigrants’ access to existing city services (such as with language access policies), restoring services that have been limited or taken away by other government levels (such as by providing universal health care to city residents without any health care coverage), and developing new services for immigrants in response to federal immigration policy changes (such as by funding universal legal representation to low-income immigrants facing deportation). A second way they have done this is by creating new rights protection policies for immigrants. In the early 2000s, for example, Mayor Bloomberg issued two executive orders (EO 34 and EO 41) that prohibit city agencies from inquiring or disclosing the immigration status of city residents. Since 2005, the City Council has also taken steps to make street vending licenses available to undocumented immigrants and to increase the number of available licenses.

The third and newest way New York City officials have sought to expand urban citizenship is by creating new modes of democratic participation. Since 2011, for example, a growing number of New York City Councilmembers have engaged in participatory budgeting, allowing residents in their districts – including noncitizens – to discuss, prioritise, and vote on how to allocate part of the city budget for that district. The restoration of noncitizen voting rights is yet another instance through which city officials invite also legal immigrants to participate in local elections, thereby addressing the demographic deficit that happens when 800,000 city residents (or nearly one in nine of New York City’s voting-age residents) are excluded from the democratic process and have no say in the direction of the city they call home. In supporting immigrant participation in these democratic spaces, New York City officials have embraced the idea that someone’s city residence and participation in other aspects of city life – not their formal citizenship status – are sufficient requirements for local civic and political participation.

Intro 1867 now is law in New York City, thanks in large part to the tireless advocacy that immigrant rights organisations such as the New York Immigration Coalition and its numerous allies have provided on this important issue. The law’s enactment, however, is not the end of the story. As expected, Republicans have already sued in the New York Supreme Court (in Fossella et al. v. Adams et al.) to challenge Intro 1867’s constitutionality and to stop its implementation. Furthermore, many details have yet to be worked out so that the New York City Board of Elections – which is in urgent need of reform – can take on the responsibility of successfully implementing Intro 1867, also so that noncitizen voters’ privacy and safety are secured along the way. In all, the policy’s evolution is one to watch, because Intro 1867’s success may well encourage other progressive cities to follow suit.

Featured image: Joe Shlabotnik (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)