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.


Peter Thiel’s New Zealand citizenship: Billionaires get citizenship abroad so they can run from the problems they create — Quartz

Thiel’s safety hatch citizenship, assessed by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, the author of The Cosmopolites (another take on the themes of Chrystia Freeland’s book, Plutocrats):

We don’t know the exact details of Thiel’s naturalization yet, but it’s hard to imagine that his exorbitant wealth didn’t help. New Zealand offers residence permits to rich investors—the hacker Kim Dotcom, who’s facing extradition to the United States, bought his way there by investing millions of dollars—and grants citizenship in special circumstances to people who don’t meet the five-year residence requirements.

In these discretionary cases, New Zealand’s immigration minister has to personally approve the petition and deem it “in the public interest because of exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian or other nature.” (Thiel does not appear to have won any prizes for his humanitarian efforts.)

Thiel’s opinions will affect some 300 million Americans, most of whom who do not have a backup passport—or indeed, even the funds for a plane ticket abroad.  More and more countries are adopting special citizenship laws to let in extraordinarily rich or talented people, whether it’s athletes, experts, or entrepreneurs. As I note in my book, The Cosmopolites, for your average billionaire, having a Plan B country has become practically de rigueur. Citizenship-by-investment is estimated to be a $2 billion a year business. A half-dozen countries, from tiny specks in the Caribbean like Antigua to EU member states like Malta, openly sell their passport to wealthy individuals so long as they are not known criminals. Even the US effectively sells green cards through its EB-5 investor program.

It’s one thing for a wealthy private citizen to buy herself options to make traveling, living, and working abroad easier. Hypocrisy among Trump’s inner circle—and indeed, in all contemporary American politics—is hardly breaking news. And the irony of a Trump confidante revealing himself to be a rootless globalist is admittedly delectable. It’s also not all that surprising: Trump’s pick for trade secretary, Robert Lighthizer, has attended the Davos World Economic Forum 15 times.

The fact that Thiel can easily run away from the very rules and regulations he’ll be helping Trump shape, however, is not funny in the least. Thiel is in a position of immense power as Trump’s advisor. His opinions will affect some 300 million Americans, most of whom who do not have a backup passport—or indeed, even the funds for a plane ticket abroad. The ease with which Thiel can opt out of American society speaks to the very concerns that conservatives themselves have voiced about the denationalized “Davos man” for decades. When Samuel Huntington worried in 2004 that America’s elites were “seceding,” he could have easily been talking about Thiel—or any number of Trump’s cabinet appointees, for that matter.

 It is the current system of passports and nations and states, along with moralistic attitudes about patriotism, that enables the rich to opt out. On the surface, there seem to be immense contradictions between the nationalist, populist, protectionist rhetoric that Trump spouts and the acquisitive globalism of a Peter Thiel type. But these twin ideologies coalesce in a mutually supportive way. Trump said in a December speech that there is no world currency, no world flag, and no world passport. That’s true. But the continued primacy of the nation-state is precisely why the practice of “sovereignty hacking” or “jurisdiction shopping,” as exemplified by citizenship-by-investment programs and offshore tax registries, has become so prevalent among those who can afford it. Picking and choosing residencies, citizenships, and tax regimes helps the wealthy exist as though the world had no borders at all, which means they can throw their support behind nationalist policies that will close off options to everyone else. It is the current system of passports and nations and states, along with moralistic attitudes about patriotism, that enables the rich to opt out.

Thiel knows this world very, very well. In fact, Thiel apparently found the concept of hacking sovereignty so compelling that in 2008, he gave his personal and financial support to the Seasteading Institute, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that promotes the creation of artificial floating nations in international waters. The political philosophy behind seasteading can be summed up as follows:

  1. Governments are bad

  2. Governments have a monopoly on sovereignty

  3. Governments would be less bad if they had to compete on the open market with each other for capital, companies, citizens, and ideas

  4. No one can compete with governments because governments control the world’s land

  5. The only spaces that aren’t controlled by existing governments are in international waters

  6. Creating lots of new countries in international waters will increase competition and make all governments better

Source: Peter Thiel’s New Zealand citizenship: Billionaires get citizenship abroad so they can run from the problems they create — Quartz

‘The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen,’ by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian – The New York Times

Richard Bellamy’s review of The Cosmopolites and his valid  commentary regarding the nature of citizenship:

The Canadian philosopher Joseph Carens has characterized national citizenship as “the modern equivalent of feudal class privilege.’’ That seems all too accurate a description of the citizenship of the absolute monarchies of the U.A.E., where only 15 percent of the population enjoy the privileges of citizens. These benefits are paid for largely by the unearned windfall of oil and gas revenues and they involve almost no civic duties or political rights. The multiple citizenships of the U.H.N.W.I. are similarly free of responsibility and lacking in political commitment — that is their point. They are commercial transactions conducted for profit. Neither of these types of citizenship corresponds to the hard-won forms of citizenship found within democratic states.

Herein lies the weakness of Abrahamian’s analysis. The political and social rights of genuine, state-based citizenship derive from the contribution members make to sustaining the public life of the community, be it through participation in the economy as workers and consumers, caring for children and the elderly or simply recognizing and abiding by its laws. All who contribute in these ways should be entitled to citizenship. By contrast, global citizens belong nowhere and anywhere. Yet both the injustice of denying citizenship to the bidoon and those like them and the unfairness of granting it as a commercial transaction to the super-rich stem from the same cause — a failure to link the rights of citizens to those civic duties that arise from active membership in a political community.

Source: ‘The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen,’ by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian – The New York Times

”Global citizenship is essentially a branding exercise” and passport shopping is big business – Quartz

Interesting and relevant interview with the author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, Nov. 2015), Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. Worth reading in its entirety in its discussion of citizens of convenience as well as those without citizenship rights. Two of her responses:

QZ: But in between this global jet-set demographic, either the very rich or the very politically connected, and people at the other end of the spectrum—Syrian refugees, the bidoon, which you’ve written about in The Cosmopolites, people who are just trying to get documented so they can participate in a society and survive—is there a middle ground? Would an ordinary person want multiple passports?
AAA: Totally. I’m sure you have friends, and I have tons of friends who are now trying really hard to find an Italian grandparent or a German grandparent to get that extra passport. And it’s a great thing to have, it gives you so many opportunities and makes life so much less of a bureaucratic pain in the ass.
Some people are deeply offended by nationality of convenience, but it’s not insidious. You’re just trying to live and work in another country. What’s wrong with that?

QZ: There are also security reasons for obtaining multiple passports, right?

AAA: Yes, if you’re from a place that’s kind of politically unstable. Take for example, if you’re Egyptian or Libyan, a place in the world that’s a little volatile, politically, and you’re rich, and you can afford to have an escape route, it seems pretty wise. You don’t necessarily need another passport to do it, but if it’s an issue of “we need to leave now,” it’s a pretty great thing to have.

QZ: So, you can be a global citizen and still have love for one country in particular. You can be a nationalist and an internationalist?

AAA: The Stoics and the ancient Greeks imagined cosmopolitanism as concentric circles of belonging. You have yourself and your family, your town, your kingdom. You can extrapolate to a circle that’s a nation, and maybe the EU, or if you’re Pan-Africanist, you have an Africa circle, and then the whole world.

 I think that, for me, the biggest political question is, okay, if we’re global citizens, how do we manage redistribution. Where do we pay taxes? For what, to whom, to what end? I think nobody’s really figured that out yet. Piketty talks about a global wealth tax, but it’s unclear how that’s actually going to happen.

One way to do it might be taxing financial transactions—but I don’t even know! That’s way above my paygrade. But I think that’s the central issue as markets become more global and people become more global, you still need some mechanism of redistribution. Libertarians love global citizenship because you’re off the hook for it, right? If you’re not rooted, you’re like, “Well, I don’t have to pay taxes.” That was the whole reason for Gerard Depardieu not wanting to pay taxes in France was, “I’m a global citizen.”

So, I think that’s the essential question for me. Right now, we do need countries and democracies to implement this. Because no one else is doing it. No one’s come up with anything better.

Source: ”Global citizenship is essentially a branding exercise” and passport shopping is big business – Quartz