The good folks at NewsBusters are very upset that immigration activist José Antonio Vargas and I favor enfranchising non-citizens, at least in local elections. Our position, they say, is not only “outrageous”; it also constitutes “deliberate subversion of the U.S. electoral system.”
No, it doesn’t. As this report from The City College of New York shows, giving non-citizens the vote is an extremely good idea, for many reasons. It’s such a good idea, in fact, that it has been practiced in the U.S. since the very dawn of the Republic.
A bit of history: Between 1776 and 1928—that’s 152 years, or 63% of the time that the United States has existed—non-citizen voting was more the rule than the exception, permitted in some 40 different states and federal territories.
For citizens of countries like Chile and New Zealand, none of this so much as raises an eyebrow. In Chile, you can vote in federal elections once you’ve lived in the country for five years; in New Zealand, permanent residents (the equivalent of green card holders here) can vote once they’ve resided in the country for 12 months.
That’s as it should be. Non-citizens are crucial parts of our cities and our economies: There are over 1 million legal non-citizens in New York City alone, generating billions of dollars in tax revenues. For a country that was built on the idea of “no taxation without representation,” it’s a bit hypocritical to deny these people a formal say in how they’re governed.
More generally, the entire basis of democracy is that it derives its legitimacy from the consent and participation of the governed. Excluding non-citizens weakens any country’s democratic bona fides. Non-citizens have to obey all laws and pay all taxes; they can even serve in the military. Yet when it comes to voting, they’re treated worse than felons (who should also have the vote, but that’s a separate issue).
In many American cities, from Miami to San Jose, immigrants comprise more than one-third of the total population. (They are also largely Hispanic, which might explain why NewsBusters hilariously refers to me as “Félix Salmón.”) Those immigrant communities are likely to be overlooked by elected politicians in direct proportion to the degree to which they are disenfranchised: Voting is the mechanism by which politicians are held accountable, and if a large group of people can’t vote, then politicians will naturally feel free to ignore them.
No one is suggesting that non-citizens should vote illegally: What Vargas and I want is for the law to be changed to allow them to vote. That can happen at any level of government, from school advisory boards (as in Chicago) through city and state legislatures and even beyond.
Realistically, non-citizens will never be able to vote in federal elections. But that’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to vote in immigrant-heavy cities like New York, the home of the Statue of Liberty. Once immigrants arrive on these shores, yearning to breathe free, who are we to tell them that they cannot participate in the most basic of democratic institutions?