Try walking into the local coffee shop and announce that you think it is a good idea that noncitizens should be given the right to vote. You just might not make it out alive. People have very strong feelings about what rights, if any, should be afforded to men and women who live in America but who, for whatever reason, are not citizens.
Not that long ago, the President of the Boston City Council, Andrea Campbell came out in favor of allowing noncitizens, possibly including immigrants who do not have legal status, the right to vote in Boston’s municipal elections. According to a spokesperson for Campbell, the Boston City Council will be scheduling hearings on the subject some time between the end of June and mid-July.
A bill filed by a Worcester state representative is the type of legislation that could allow her to do it.
Cambell’s proposal is likely to generate strong feelings and harsh words. My best guess is that neither side will actually listen to the arguments of the other.
In her hearing order, Campbell focuses on legal immigrants including residents with green cards or TPS designation. However, she also wants to “explore” the idea of giving those immigrants without legal status the right to vote.
Since 1996, federal law allows only U.S. citizens to vote in federal elections. But that was not always the case.
In fact by 1900, a majority of states and federal territories allowed some form of voting by noncitizens – some had allowed noncitizen voting for 50 years. Shortly thereafter, states began to slowly remove the privilege of voting from noncitizens.
According to San Francisco State University political scientist Ron Hayduk, noncitizen voting was commonplace in America. “For most of America’s history and in the vast majority of the USA, voting by noncitizens was the norm, not the exception.”
While only U.S. citizens can vote in federal elections, some states allow local communities to permit noncitizen voting in local elections. Presently, 10 communities in Maryland allow noncitizen voting. Chicago and San Francisco also allow limited local voting for noncitizens. San Francisco’s right to vote is extended to undocumented immigrants.
In Massachusetts, towns like Amherst and Cambridge have attempted to allow noncitizen voting. However, their attempts ran afoul of the Massachusetts State Constitution which requires citizenship for all voting. To be enacted into law, a community would have to approve of noncitizen voting and then convince the state Legislature to pass a home rule petition.
In arguing for her position, Campbell said, that noncitizens contribute millions of dollars to the local economy. “If members of society are participating in our economy, cleaning our homes, buying consumer goods, paying taxes, then we need to find creative ways for them to contribute in meaningful ways.”
Closer to home, State Representative Dan Donahue was one of eleven state representatives, all Democrats, who filed legislation last year to allow non-citizens the right to vote in local elections. The bill was sent to the Joint Committee on Election Laws which held hearings in June and October. This year that bill was sent to “study” which effectively means that it is dead.
In essence, House 388 amends Chapter 51 of the Massachusetts General Laws by inserting language which would allow noncitizens 18 years of age or older who reside in the city or town the right to vote in local elections.
The relevant language states that noncitizens “may have their names entered on a list of voters established by municipal election officials and may thereafter vote in any municipal election for school committee, school committee questions, city council and board of selectmen for so long as they remain domiciled in the municipality.”
Before it can take affect, the legislation requires that the local legislative body, city council or board of selectmen, must approve acceptance of the language. Once accepted, a question would then be placed before the voters of that community, at the next regular municipal or state election, for its consideration.
The legislation requires that the noncitizen must declare that he or she “intends in good faith to become a U.S. citizen and intends to begin that process, if eligible.”
I asked Representative Donahue why he was willing to support this kind of legislation. He said that while “this issue is really not a top priority for me,” it does give communities “a process” if they want to move in that direction.
Donahue mentioned that more and more communities want to consider this idea because noncitizens can be property owners, business owners and have children in the local school system.
The argument in favor of allowing noncitizens the right to vote in local elections is straight forward. Noncitizens pay state and local taxes and rely on the same local services as everyone else – trash collection, local schools, police and fire support. They are invested in the community.
However, those that oppose extending voting rights to noncitizens counter with the fact that the right to vote should be reserved only for actual U.S. citizens and that citizenship is open to immigrants who are here legally if they want it.
Putting the Boston proposal to “explore” the idea of giving immigrants here illegally the right to vote, which I consider to be extreme and not worthy of debate, the question of allowing immigrants to vote in local elections will likely continue to be discussed.
The Constitution and the laws of the United States give certain rights only to citizens. Among these rights include the right to seek most elected offices, eligibility for many federal jobs and other rights relating to immigration. Highest among them is the right to vote.
While I understand the rationale for allowing noncitizens the right to vote in local elections, it seems to me that diminishing the right to vote, the highest right and responsibility of citizenship, does not make sense.
In the bill filed by Representative Donahue, the language makes it clear that only those who formally declare that they intend to become citizens can be considered. If that is to be the case, waiting a year or several years until they actually become citizens before they are eligible to vote seems to do little harm. In fact, holding out the right to vote may well serve as a motivating factor in encouraging citizenship.
Three of my children’s four grandparents were immigrants who initially could not vote. I remember watching my mother study for her citizenship. And I especially remember how proud and excited she was when she became a citizen and voted for the first time.
The experience of working toward citizenship and the pride that comes with achieving it, one shared by millions of immigrants over the years, is worthy of protecting. Voting should remain a right for citizens.