Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: There Is No Good Reason You Should Have to Be a Citizen to Vote

A rather controversial and unrealistic proposal, one that expands on arguments used in the case of municipal voting rights. As always, I prefer to address citizenship requirements and processes rather than expanding one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship to non-citizens:

Washingtonians love to complain about taxation without representation. But for me and my fellow noncitizens, it is a fact of political life that we submit to unquestioningly year after year, primary after primary, presidential election after presidential election. Nearly 15 million people living legally in the United States, most of whom contribute as much as any natural-born American to this country’s civic, cultural and economic life, don’t have a say in matters of politics and policy because we — resident foreign nationals, or “aliens” as we are sometimes called — cannot vote.

Considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision undermining voting rights, and Republicans’ efforts to suppress, redistrict and manipulate their way to electoral security, it’s time for Democrats to radically expand the electorate. Proposing federal legislation to give millions of young people and essential workers a clear road to citizenship is a good start. But there’s another measure that lawmakers both in Washington and state capitals should put in place: lifting voting restrictions on legal residents who aren’t citizens — people with green cards, people here on work visas, and those who arrived in the country as children and are still waiting for permanent papers.

Expanding the franchise in this way would give American democracy new life, restore immigrants’ trust in government and send a powerful message of inclusion to the rest of the world.

It’s easy to assume that restricting the franchise to citizens is an age-old, nonnegotiable fact. But it’s actually a relatively recent convention and a political choice. Early in the United States’ history, voting was a function not of national citizenship but of gender, race and class. As a result, white male landowners of all nationalities were encouraged to play an active role in shaping American democracy, while women and poor, Indigenous and enslaved people could not. That wholesale discrimination is unquestionably worse than excluding resident foreigners from the polls, but the point is that history shows how readily voting laws can be altered — and that restrictive ones tend not to age well.

Another misconception is that citizen voting rights have always been the prerogative of the federal government. In fact, states have largely decided who had a say in local, state and national elections. Arkansas was the last state to eliminate noncitizen voting in 1926, and it wasn’t until 1996 that Congress doubled down with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made voting in federal elections while foreign — already not permitted because of state-level rules — a criminal, and deportable, offense. (This means that congressional Democrats working on immigration and election reform can reverse the 1996 sanctions the same way they voted them in.)

The strongest case for noncitizen voting today is representation: The more voters show up to the polls, the more accurately elections reflect peoples’ desires. The United States already has plenty of institutions that account for noncitizens: The census aims to reach all residents because it believes everyone, even aliens, matters. Corporations enjoy free speech and legal personhood — and they’re not even people. Would it be such a stretch to give a noncitizen resident a say in who gets elected to their state legislature, Congress or the White House?

What’s more, allowing noncitizens to vote in federal, state and municipal elections would help revitalize American democracy at a time when enthusiasm and trust are lacking. While 2020 was considered a “high turnout” election, only about 65 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Compare that to Germany, where turnout was 76 percent in the last general election.

Democrats are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of this change — at least at first. But it could have interesting ripple effects: Elected Republicans might be induced to appeal to a more diverse constituency, or perhaps to enthuse their constituents so deeply that they too start to vote in greater numbers.

It’s also just good civics: Allowing people to vote gives them even more of a sense of investment in their towns, cities, communities and country. There’s a detachment that comes with not being able to vote in the place where you live. Concerns about mixed loyalties, meanwhile, are misplaced. The United States not only allows dual citizenship but also allows dual citizens to vote — and from abroad. Is there any reason to think resident foreigners should be less represented?

Voting is, in a sense, a reward for becoming an American. But in truth, it’s often much harder to get a visa or green card than to then become a naturalized citizen. It took me 15 years and over $10,000 in legal fees (not to mention the cost of college) to obtain permanent residency. The citizenship test and oath feel comparatively like a piece of cake.

It shouldn’t be this onerous to emigrate. But given that it is, it would make much more sense to make residents provide proof of voter registration as a requirement for naturalization, rather than the other way around. We will have more than “earned” it. And what better way to learn about American life than to play an active role in deciding its elections?

In the absence of federal- or state-level action, local lawmakers are already free let noncitizens decide on things like garbage pickup, parking rules and potholes. Some do. Since 1992, Takoma Park, Md., has allowed all residents to vote, regardless of their citizenship. Nine additional Maryland towns, as well as districts in Vermont and Massachusetts, have voted to re-enfranchise noncitizens. The cities of Chicago, Washington and Portland are also considering the idea, and a bill that would give New York City’s authorized immigrants voting rights has a new supermajority in the City Council.

I’ve lived in New York since 2004, but haven’t once had a chance to cast a ballot here. Last fall, I grew so frustrated that I started mailing ballots to my hometown in Switzerland. But voting in a place I haven’t lived in since I was a minor makes about as little sense as not voting in the city where I’ve lived my entire adult life.

I’m looking forward to City Council giving me, and the other million or so friendly aliens living here, the right to vote for New York’s officials. But we should be able to vote for our representatives in Washington, too. I hope that Democrats seize their chance, and realize the power and the enthusiasm of their potential constituents. They — and we — will not regret it.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/opinion/noncitizen-voting-us-elections.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: