The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York City becomes the largest municipality in the U.S. to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections

A shopkeeper waits for customers at Diversity Plaza in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. (José Alvarado Jr. for The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — The city council here on Thursday approved a measure that will allow immigrants who are not U.S. citizens to vote for mayor and other key municipal positions, a historic move that is igniting threats of legal challenges from Republicans and hopes from Democrats that other cities will follow suit.

The council voted 33 to 14 with two abstentions and the measure grants noncitizens significant leverage over a broad array of elective offices, including the mayor, city council, comptroller, the public advocate and the leaders of the city’s five boroughs who oversee issues such as zoning.

The next election will be in mid-2023, officials said.

Approximately 1 million adult noncitizens live in New York City, which amounts to 20 percent of current registered voters, though it remains to be seen how many would be eligible to vote, according to census figures and academic estimates. To register, noncitizens must have lived here for 30 days, the same requirement for citizens, and have at least a work permit.

Those in the United States illegally cannot vote in New York’s municipal elections. Noncitizens remain ineligible to vote for state and federal elections. Anyone who violates the New York measure could face up to $500 in fines and a year in jail.

“The New York City Council is making history,” said council member Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s sponsor, who is an immigrant and naturalized citizen from the Dominican Republic. “New York City must be seen as a shining example for other progressive cities to follow.”

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The vote capped hours of emotional debate at City Hall among council members who recalled their own roots as the descendants of people from Africa, Italy, Ireland, Albania and Hong Kong. Some are immigrants themselves.

Supporters included council members Francisco Moya, an Ecuadoran American member whose immigrant mother now can vote, Carlos Menchaca, the state’s first Mexican American elected official, and Margaret S. Chin, who is originally from Hong Kong.

Republicans vowed to fight the measure in court, saying that the state constitution says “citizens” can vote and that New York never intended to grant voting power to people who have only lived in the country for one month.

But some lawyers and historians argue that New York’s move is probably legal because noncitizens have voted, off and on, in the city and the country for more than 200 years, starting in the 1700s and picking up steam after the Civil War, when the majority of the city’s adult residents were from European nations such as Ireland, Germany and Italy.

New York allowed noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections as recently as 2002, when officials abolished the boards.

“They believed that if you gave people the right to vote, they would be invested in American society, feel part of the process,” said Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who wrote “Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States.”

Still, some Democrats worried about the measure. Bronx Democrat Mark Gjonaj asked colleagues to delay the bill, saying it could make the city’s elections vulnerable to nefarious foreign threats or people who are “transient.”

Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, the first African American woman to serve in that position, said the measure will shift the city’s power dynamics and potentially weaken the Black vote in neighborhoods such as Harlem, where residents are fighting gentrification. While Dominicans would gain ground, she said she did not know how it would affect Black residents yet.

“The only thing that many African American communities have left are their Black representatives,” she said.

Applause filled the chamber after the vote, the culmination of years of advocacy that sought to restore voting rights that existed for other immigrants in the past but has largely stagnated nationwide.

Fourteen smaller jurisdictions in the United States allow noncitizens to vote, mostly in Maryland, including Hyattsville and Takoma Park, but also in Vermont and for the school board in San Francisco. Cities such as Los Angeles, Washington and Portland, Maine, have floated the idea, said Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at San Francisco State University and the author of “Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting in the U.S.”

Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, Colorado and Alabama ban noncitizen voting in their states, part of a parallel push by Republicans to prohibit such voting nationwide.

Republicans called the idea “radical” and vowed to fight it in court in New York and “all 50 states,” said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in a recent statement. The RNC filed a lawsuit to block a new measure that allows noncitizens to vote in a pair of Vermont cities.

Joseph Borelli, one of a handful of Republicans on the New York City Council, said only U.S. citizens should vote for officials deciding sensitive matters such as taxes, the debt liability and zoning. He said the state has limited noncitizen voting to narrow matters, such as school boards, not for the entire municipal government.

“I don’t think those things should be decided by foreign citizens,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is not about a stop sign on their corner.”

To become law, the mayor has to sign the bill or decline to veto it within 30 days, and although he has said he was unsure of its legality, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would not veto the measure. The elections board would have to create a registration process that would be for “municipal” voters only, making clear that they are not citizens.

Advocates say noncitizens should weigh in on city elections because they pay taxes, send their children to public schools and work here, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when so many fled the city.

Immigrants account for nearly 37 percent of the 8 million residents in New York City, census figures show, and city officials say almost 60 percent are naturalized citizens. The rest are green-card holders, temporary workers or students and undocumented immigrants.

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John Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said it is unclear how many noncitizens would actually register to vote or match the city’s eligibility criteria. But he estimated that the largest groups would be from China, followed by people from the Dominican Republic, and Caribbean nations such as Haiti and Jamaica.

He cautioned that it also remains unclear which political party they might favor: Most Dominicans vote Democrat, but he estimates that more than a third of voters of Chinese descent do not declare a party.

On a graffiti-scarred street in Lower Manhattan, administrators at the Chinese-American Planning Council say having more immigrants vote could bring in more public funding for English classes.

Jinquan Zhang, a 33-year-old immigrant from China who took classes at the planning council and now works there, said the measure would instantly make him, his brother and their parents eligible to vote. All have green cards after arriving in 2017, and they have also been anxious about an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in New York after President Donald Trump last year dubbed covid-19 the “Chinese virus.

“I want to vote,” Zhang said, speaking haltingly in his newly acquired language, his third. “I want who can represent me to make my neighborhood better.”

Oscar Rodriguez, a 48-year-old truck driver from Honduras who has a temporary work permit but has lived in Queens since 1997, said the measure would double the number of city voters in his household to four people. If Congress grants millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States work permits this year — he’d prefer citizenship — his wife would be the fifth voter. All are Democrats.

“Of course, if I could vote, I would do it,” he said.

Sanjok Lama, 44, a folk singer from Nepal, and his daughter Dolma, who organizes South Asian immigrant workers in Jackson Heights in Queens, said he is open to various political parties.

“I prefer Democrats, but the Republicans are not bad on some issues,” he said as his daughter winced.

Ydanis Rodriguez, the measure’s sponsor, said over cups of steaming hot coffee in a mostly Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan this week that the city should embrace noncitizen voters. He recalled his start as an 18-year-old brought by his family to the United States. He didn’t know English and washed dishes to put himself through college. He became a high school history teacher, and now, an elected official soon to leave office because of term limits.

His proposal, he said, is no different from the one that centuries ago allowed new arrivals — for the most part, White men — from countries such as Ireland and Italy to vote.

“It’s not new,” he said.

Borelli, the GOP minority leader, who is from Staten Island, the borough with the lowest number of noncitizens, said his party will file a lawsuit to block Rodriguez’s measure from taking effect and will “probably win.”

But if they lose, he said, “we’ll be soliciting votes from any newly enfranchised New York voter.”

He acknowledged the doublespeak, but said the only other alternative is to give up.

“Don’t forget,” he said, “a lot of these people happen to be Republicans.”

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