Cities want noncitizens to vote on local matters. GOP sees a target

sign with American flag stating "Vote Here"

This article was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.

by Kristian Hernández, Center for Public Integrity

November 22, 2022

WASHINGTON – Abel Amene was born in Ethiopia and came to the U.S. when he was 13 years old. Amene, who is a green card holder, has lived in the D.C.-area for the past 23 years, where he helps seniors sign up for vaccine appointments and volunteers in political campaigns.

In 2021, he wrote a resolution that passed the D.C. Council to help expand Medicare access to uninsured Hispanic and Black residents. Amene is a gig worker and local events organizer. He pays taxes, but like tens of thousands of his foreign-born neighbors, Amene has no representation in local elections because he is not a U.S. citizen.

“It is my home but I cannot vote,” Amene said during a public hearing in July, where he urged city council members to pass a bill that would allow some 51,000 foreign-born residents, regardless of immigration status, to vote in local elections starting in 2024.

“Please give us the power to help choose who will lead the city we call home,” Amene said.

Council members passed the bill this past month, and Mayor Muriel Bowser, who introduced the first version of the measure in 2013 when she served in the council, returned it Monday without a signature. The bill now goes to Congress for review, where it will likely be challenged by Republicans who have spoken against the bill.

“The D.C. Council has passed legislation that fundamentally violates American sovereignty, and it has done it right in the Nation’s capital. This is a disgraceful episode in the District’s history,” several Republican members of the House Oversight and the Administration Committees wrote in an October joint letter to Mayor Bowser asking her to block the law.

Noncitizens are prohibited from voting in federal elections, and false claims that they are doing so illegally have been at the center of Republican campaigns seeking to demonize immigrants and make voting more difficult for people of color. No state has allowed noncitizens to vote in state elections, either. 

But historians cite a long history of noncitizens voting in U.S. elections. Voting rights advocates worry the few modern efforts by cities such as D.C., New York and San Francisco to give noncitizens a say in local elections is being amplified by Republican lawmakers to suppress voting rights and spread conspiracy theories of Democrats using undocumented immigrants to replace the U.S. electorate.

Abel Amene said a lot of these fears are rooted in age-old xenophobia and racism. “Immigrants are not ‘complete strangers,’” he said. “They are our neighbors, family and friends.”

Noncitizen voting rights

There were more than 25 million noncitizens living in the U.S. as of 2017. This included some 9 million legal permanent residents in the U.S. eligible to become U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security data.

While millions of legal immigrants pay taxes and contribute to their communities for years, there are significant barriers to obtaining full citizenship. 

“Part of the reason I want this bill to pass is because applying for citizenship is so difficult,” Amene said. “It could cost me up to $2,000. I don’t have that kind of money sitting in my bank account. I don’t think most people do.”

Fifteen municipalities across the country have passed laws that allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. As of January 2022, 11 were located in Maryland, two were located in Vermont, one was New York City, and the other, San Francisco.

But this is neither a new nor a radical idea, said Rachelle Gunter, a voting rights, suffrage, and citizenship historian based in North Texas. Noncitizens voting in U.S. elections has been ingrained in the history of this country. It wasn’t until 1996 that noncitizens were banned from voting in federal elections. From the founding of the country until 1926, 40 states at various points allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state and federal elections.

“Politicians have long enfranchised and disenfranchised groups to benefit those already in power, and noncitizens have been allowed to vote depending on their value to the commonwealth,” Gunter said.

Immigrant noncitizens were enfranchised by the founding generation, acting through the Confederate Congress, from 1781 to 1789 in the Northwest Territory as a means of incentivizing expansion. Noncitizen voting attracted immigrants by giving them a say in the government, and those in power saw it as training them for full citizenship, Gunter said.

But this right was taken away in the early 1820s after many states eliminated property requirements for white male voters and new barriers to political participation for women and people of color were erected, Gunter said. And when states needed to increase their populations to qualify for statehood, the country saw a resurgence of voting by declarant immigrants.

At its peak, between 1850 and 1899, 27 states and territories allowed noncitizen voting. Suffrage of noncitizens was once again taken away during the end of the Reconstruction era and the beginning of the Jim Crow era. The last state to end noncitizen voting was Arkansas in 1926.

Amending state constitutions

In the past four years, five states — Alabama,Colorado, Florida, Ohio and North Dakota — have amended their constitutions to say “only” instead of “every” citizen can vote. In Louisiana, voters will decide in December if the state constitution should be amended to ensure only citizens can vote.

These amendments came as part of a national push to end noncitizen voting by two Republican led organizations supporting ballot measures across the country to amend state constitutions to say “only citizens” can vote.

Citizen Voters, Inc, out of Florida was founded as a nonprofit organization on November 30, 2018 by John Louden a former Republican state senator in Missouri and past advisor to America First Policies, a group supporting former President Donald Trump. Republican strategist and conservative talk show host Christopher Arps leads Americans for Citizen Voting, a nonprofit based in Missouri founded in 2019.

Louden and Arps did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a post published in September of 2020 by RedState, a conservative political blog, Arps argued Democrats are trying to steal elections by allowing noncitizens to vote.

“When illegal aliens and felons vote, when identity thieves cast votes of registered voters, or cast them on behalf of people long deceased, the votes of legitimate voters are diluted or diminished in ways similar to those of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Arps wrote in another opinion piece published in 2019 by The Hill, a D.C.-based newspaper covering politics and policy.

Research shows that voter fraud is extraordinarily rare. Multiple studies, state investigations and allegations of noncitizen voting by partisan officials have uncovered almost no instances of noncitizen voting across the country in the past two decades.

Gunter, the Texas-based historian, said efforts to ban noncitizen voting, especially in places like Ohio where it was already illegal, are simply fear mongering by politicians to drum up support from their base. She also warned of the consequences that have followed these types of movements in the past.

When states moved to ban noncitizen voting in the early 1900s, they passed nativist anti-immigration laws at the same time. One of those draconian immigration laws prohibited many victims of the Holocaust from fleeing to the United States, Gunter said.

“At this point, very few immigrants have voting rights in the United States. But the fact that they’re being targeted for even further removal from the political system, by adding that ban to state constitutions, makes me fear that there’s further targeting of immigrants to come,” Gunter said.

Localities face backlash

Ohio was the latest to amend its constitution to read “only citizens” can vote. The amendment, which passed with 77% support on Nov. 8, came as a response to Yellow Springs village, a small liberal college town outside of Dayton, where voters passed a referendum in 2020 that would have allowed some two dozen noncitizens to vote on local matters.

Village Mayor Pam Conine said most of the people they were trying to enfranchise were green card holders with deep roots in the community. “These are folks that are already serving on our commissions, a couple own businesses, they have kids in our schools, they pay taxes, they’re involved in our community,” Conine said.

Conine said their move really wasn’t a big deal until Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, blocked Yellow Springs noncitizens from registering to vote and began pushing for a change to the state’s constitution.

“American elections are only for American citizens, and the cities in other states that have granted non-citizens the right to vote in local elections are undermining the value of what it means to be an American,” wrote LaRose in a press release.

In 2016, voters in San Francisco approved a resolution that allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections. The resolution was struck down in July by a judge after conservative groups sued, arguing it violated California’s state constitution.

The city appealed the ruling and the court allowed noncitizens the right to participate in the November election. But it may be the last time they can vote, depending on the final outcome of the case.

And early this year, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, signed a bill that would allow 800,000 noncitizens to vote in municipal elections starting in January 2023. Shortly after, a group associated with the Republican National Committee challenged the legislation in state court. The case is still pending.

Even though the DC bill to allow noncitizen voters has not been approved, it has already prompted bills from two Texas Republicans, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S, Rep. August Pfluger, aimed at blocking federal funds to the capital if the city allows noncitizens to vote.    

Voter suppression

Voting rights advocates worry amendments like the one in Ohio are not aimed only at limiting access to the ballot for noncitizens.

Michelle Kanter Cohen, policy director and senior counsel at Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voter access advocacy group, said the Ohio amendment also prohibits voter registration within 30 days of an election, one of the most severe restrictions in the country. 

In an email, Cohen wrote that Fair Elections does not have a position on whether noncitizens should be enfranchised. But Cohen said states should carefully assess any arguments for restricting local communities’ efforts to expand the freedom to vote.

Opponents of noncitizen voting argue that only citizens can truly have a stake in the issues that appear on the ballot and are concerned immigrants will come temporarily to their communities, vote for certain policies that long-term residents do not support, and then leave. But arguments like this have been used in the past to exclude citizen military members from elections and were held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Cohen.

“Some of the people making this argument say the goal is to maintain the ‘purity’ of the ballot box, language with roots in racially discriminatory policies from the Jim Crow era and the eugenics movement,” Cohen said.

Some states banned non-citizens from voting only after large numbers of Catholic, Jewish and southern and eastern European immigrants settled in the U.S., because lawmakers saw them as culturally and ethnically inferior, according to Cohen.

Mixed feelings

More than 50 public witnesses spoke in July supporting the D.C. bill to allow noncitizens to vote. Corina Garay, a U.S. citizen, D.C. native and daughter of two immigrants, said: “At a time when states are fighting to curtail voting rights, D.C. should join other jurisdictions in its expansion.”

“When we disenfranchise members of our community, we embolden a system that already values certain lives over others. The reality is that much like any U.S. citizen [legal permanent residents] care about our economy, school system, public safety and they absolutely care about the policies that influence their daily lives regardless of citizenship.”

But some in the immigrant community here have mixed feelings about the local bill to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, an immigrant advocacy group that helps D.C. immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship, said the risk of mistakenly voting illegally in federal elections will not be worth it.

“I feel like these laws are just a showpiece to make lawmakers feel good about themselves,” said Nuñez, who spoke against the bill. “It’s not even going to gain them that many votes, and for those noncitizens who do exercise their vote, it’s putting them in an unnecessary precarious situation.”

Federal law states that it is unlawful for a noncitizen to vote in federal elections and establishes the punishment of a fine, one year in prison, or both, for violation of the law. Federal law also states that noncitizens who violate the law could be deported.

But under the D.C. bill, noncitizens would use a separate ballot to cast their vote with only local candidates. Cities in nearby Maryland where noncitizens can vote hold local elections on a separate day. D.C.’s local elections would be held on the same day as federal elections. This opens the door for human error, Nuñez said.

“In theory the idea of expanding the right to vote to noncitizens is a good idea,” Nuñez said, “but we have to do it in a responsible manner where we are not causing more harm to the people we are pretending to expand those rights to.”

This article first appeared on Center for Public Integrity and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.