Atlantic Cities

New York City May Let Non-Citizens Vote

New York City May Let Non-Citizens Vote
Chip East/Reuters

The New York City voting rolls may be about to undergo their largest expansion since women's suffrage.

The City Council will begin a hearing today on a bill to give non-citizen residents the right to vote in city elections. With 34 of the body's 51 members sponsoring the legislation, it looks like it will have enough votes to pass despite Mayor Bloomberg's opposition.

Nearly three of eight New Yorkers are foreign-born, according to the Census, though it's not clear how many of those 3 million people are citizens, legal residents, or of voting age. (Despite efforts from congressional Republicans, the Census does not have a citizenship question.) Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at CUNY who supports the proposal, has written that 22 percent of New York City adults are non-citizens.

In any case, it seems clear that the measure would extend voting rights to hundreds of thousands of people. First-time voters would need to be legal residents of the United States, and provide proof that they have lived in New York City for at least six months, in the form of a gas bill or other document.

Supporters of the concept, like Daniel Dromm, the Queens councilman who chairs the City Council Immigration Committee and first proposed the legislation in 2010, frame it is an issue of "taxation without representation." They argue that non-citizen voting has a long tradition in the U.S., where until the early 20th century, 40 states allowed non-citizens to vote and hold public office. School board elections in New York and Chicago have more recently allowed non-citizen suffrage.

But the movement's recent progress has been slow. In New York, a similar bill failed in 2004. More modest campaigns to let non-citizen residents vote have fallen short in San Francisco and Portland, Maine. Only a few U.S. cities, the largest of which is Brookline, Massachusetts (pop. 58,000), have extended the vote for all municipal elections.

Is this a turning point? It seems now that the proposal has gained the favor of New Yorkers as well as their council members: a 2011 poll [PDF] by Hunter College researchers found that slightly over half of the city was in favor of allowing non-citizens to vote. Still, experts are unsure whether the city has the power to decide its own voting requirements, or whether that responsibility might be claimed by the state, or disputed in court.

Top image: Chip East/Reuters.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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