December 6, 2013

NO PREROGATIVE conferred by a democracy is more central to citizenship than the right to vote. It should not be taken for granted nor casually tinkered with or diluted.

That’s why we oppose a bill before the D.C. Council that would, at a stroke, grant voting rights in District elections to noncitizens. Any green-card holder age 18 or older who has lived in the city for as little as a month would be granted the franchise, without regard to command of English, knowledge of or length of residency in the United States, or intent to apply for citizenship.

With the exception of a handful of villages in Montgomery County and (in the case of school board elections) Chicago, we are unaware of any locality in this country where noncitizens can exercise the right to vote. New York City allowed noncitizens to vote for the school board until the mayor took control of its schools in 2002.

Under a law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, it is a crime for noncitizens to vote in a federal election. Similarly, no state permits voting by green-card holders, as legal permanent residents are known. There is no logic to justify at the local level what is expressly forbidden at the state and federal levels.

The Constitution is silent on the subject of voting by noncitizens, which was widely permitted before waves of European immigration began to reshape the nation more than a century ago. More recently, the cause has been taken up by some advocacy groups and scholars, who note that green-card holders are taxed and governed as full members of U.S. society in every other sense.

In fact, extending the franchise to noncitizens, as the legislation in the D.C. Council would do, is antithetical to a broad consensus of public opinion that for years has regarded voting as the essence of citizenship.

As a rule, most green-card holders are eligible to apply for citizenship after five years, and many do successfully. They should be encouraged to do so. By allowing them to vote before citizenship has been conferred, the D.C. Council would be providing a disincentive to applying, or an invitation to refrain from making a full commitment to their adopted country. Five years does not seem such a very long time to wait in order to obtain the full array of rights accorded to Americans.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently vetoed legislation that would have allowed green-card holders to serve on juries, on the sensible logic that sitting in judgment of one’s peers is a responsibility conferred by citizenship. Voting is a similarly weighty responsibility.