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The Long, Strange History of Non-Citizen Voting

Proponents say that letting recent immigrants vote in local elections is as American as apple pie. Can this isolated practice overcome political pushback and become more widespread?

A new voter registers in Los Angeles in September. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

It’s extremely unlikely that non-citizens will be voting in the presidential election on November 8, despite recent (and thoroughly debunked) claims to that effect by Donald Trump. And any evidence suggesting they have done so in the past is pretty weak. But here’s the thing: Non-citizens do vote in local elections, and that’s been a norm through U.S. history—not an anomaly.

It might sound outlandish and vaguely un-American, but that’s because at the moment, the practice is not very common. Six towns in Montgomery County, Maryland, including the uber-progressive D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, allow non-citizens—documented and undocumented—to vote in municipal elections. And the city of Chicago allows them to weigh in on school parent advisory boards. That’s about it.

Other cities have tried to follow suit. San Francisco has a proposal on the November 8 ballot that would allow non-citizen residents to help pick school board members. Some New York City Council members have been trying for years to pass legislation that lets non-naturalized immigrants have a say in municipal elections. (The city’s non-citizen residents were actually allowed to vote in school board elections up until 2002.) Some towns in Massachusetts have passed resolutions allowing permanent legal aliens to vote, but those were ultimately thwarted by the state legislature.

Opponents often argue that the practice could discourage immigrants from seeking citizenship. In a 2014 editorial, the L.A. Times weighed in on these lines: “If non-citizens can vote in local elections without becoming citizens, doesn't that give them one fewer reason to seek naturalization?”

Proponents of non-citizen voting often argue the opposite, saying that the practice encourages civic participation, speeds the path to citizenship, and benefits not just immigrants but their communities. “[It] focuses on what we all have in common—our collective visions for better cities, better local government, sustainable local institutions, and community life,” says Kathleen Coll, a political anthropologist at University of San Francisco, who has studied these movement and supports them in SF. “It’s a very much in the spirit of the movements for the ‘right to the city.’”

The life and death of “alien suffrage”

Once you go further back through American history, you’ll find a lot more non-citizen voting: Around 40 states have extended voting rights for non-citizens at various points. "It's not been inevitable or natural that voting has been tied to citizenship," says Ronald Hayduk, a professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, and author of Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the U.S.

In the earliest days, of course, America was chock-full of voting immigrants, fresh off the boat. During the Colonial Era, all white men with property were allowed to vote, and that continued after the American Revolution. In Pennsylvania, an eligible male needed only to have lived in the state for two years before he could vote. In a 1993 paper in the Penn Law Review, Jamie Raskin, who was an American University law professor at the time (and one of the pioneers of non-citizens voting rights in Takoma Park), explained the history of what he called “alien suffrage”:

It is crucial to see that the early spirit of political openness toward aliens was perfectly compatible with the exclusionary definition of "the American people as Christian white men of property." To exclude aliens from voting would have given rise to the dangerous inference that U.S. citizenship was the decisive criterion for suffrage at a time when the majority of U.S. citizens, including almost all women and substantial percentages of men without property, were categorically excluded from the franchise.

The practice had its ups and down in the 18th century, but voting among immigrants was common at state, federal, and regional elections, and it was extremely popular at the local level. Suspicion towards foreigners spiked during the War of 1812, and in the lead-up to the Civil War, several states tweaked the criteria for voter eligibility or abolished non-citizen voting outright. The South codified its ban in the Confederate Constitution 1861, mainly because immigrants tended not to support slavery. But the practice returned after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, and in the 1860s and 1870s, immigrant voting was at its peak, as an incentive to lure foreign labor westward.

All that changed between 1880 and 1920, when the flow of migrants escaping political instability and famine in Eastern Europe swelled. These were poor people with darker skin and different religious beliefs; many spoke unfamiliar languages and concentrated in cities, where they started political movements that threatened the status quo. Both the Republican and Democratic parties leveraged the simmering racism and rising xenophobia accompanying World War I to clamp down—state by state—on non-citizen voting rights. Other voting right restrictions were also put in place at the same time, Hayduk notes in a 2015 article for Journal of International Migration and Integration:

In fact, noncitizen voting was abolished at the same time that other restrictive measures were also enacted by elites, including literacy tests, poll taxes, felony disenfranchisement laws, and restrictive residency and voter registration requirements—all of which combined to disenfranchise millions of voters.

A year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 passed, and reconfigured the demography of America. The act sought to correct the blatantly racist immigration policies passed in the earlier part of the century that limited immigration from East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The overhaul of these policies opened the door for immigrants—and also for the reintroduction of local non-citizen voting in the coming decades.

Despite optimism, non-citizen suffrage remains distant

Proponents of immigrant voting believe that allowing non-citizens to vote is a question of equity. The citizenship process can take decades, and that’s if you have documents to begin with. Meanwhile, immigrants live in U.S. cities and towns, send their kids to school, pay state and federal income and property taxes, and contribute to the local economy—all without being really able to participate in decision-making. “We’re not visitors,” says Manuel Castro, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) in New York City, an organization that promotes the civic and social empowerment of immigrant workers. An immigrant himself, Castro has been at the heart of previous pushes for non-citizen voting. “When you’re here, you’re part of this community that’s ever-changing and ever-evolving.”

Letting recent immigrants vote wouldn’t just be a gesture of inclusiveness: It improves civic engagement and is closer to the idea of universal suffrage, advocates like Hayduk have argued. But that has not yet been reflected in the turnout among in Takoma Park’s non-citizen voters, which fluctuates depending on the election, but is overall not that high. “There are a variety of reasons, among them: we need to be doing better outreach,” Jessie Carpenter, the city clerk, writes via email. “Our elections are often not of interest because voters do not see what impact these elections have on their lives; many immigrants live in apartments and our turnout from multifamily dwellings is not good.”

That said, all the arguments against this practice—that it would be a security issue, that it would be a lure for undocumented immigrants—were also overblown. “It’s been working fine in the sense that the parade of horribles that were suggested at the time never came to pass,” says Raskin, who pushed for the rule back in 1992. (Raskin is now running for Congress). “I think that the symbolic value was achieved. I don’t know if the instrumental value of it has been realized.”

Some experts predict that non-citizen voting will remain restricted to small liberal enclaves and immigrant hubs, if in fact, they’re able to surmount the obstinate political resistance to the movement at all. Others are cautiously hopeful, waiting to see what happens after November 8 to decide how and whether to proceed with this push to provide a modicum of democratic representation to what has become one of America’s most-vilified groups. "On the one hand, you have this intense anti-immigrant language that’s very fearful,” Castro says. “​​​On the other hand, you have this feeling of wanting to be a part of something—something significant.”

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.