The New York City Council has overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow more than 800,000 lawfully present immigrants to vote in municipal elections, becoming the largest U.S. city to do so. As a founding member of the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, created in 2003 to research, recommend, and advocate for the ideas that culminated in this new policy, I could not be prouder. Even though I moved to Chicago in 2014, part of my heart will always remain in New York City and I am so happy that New Yorkers who support vibrant democracy have finally carried this initiative over the finish lines.
If this is the first time you are hearing about noncitizen voting –which was widespread in the U.S. until early in the twentieth century– please wait before you pass judgment. Many of the arguments of opponents simply do not hold water. The word “citizen” comes from the days when people’s allegiances lay with their cities because nations did not yet exist. The NYC policy does not allow voting in state or federal elections, so does not remove an incentive for recent immigrants to become U.S. citizens. To the contrary, it helps prepare them to become full federal citizens as they wait until they are eligible.
Below is the testimony that I delivered to the New York City Council for November 14, 2005 hearings on Intro. 628, the first bill introduced in favor of municipal voting rights for lawfully present non-citizens.
“Why the Voting Rights Restoration Act (Intro. 628) Is Good for New York City”
Thank you for the opportunity to testify on why New York City should allow non-citizens who reside legally in this city to vote in municipal elections. My name is Michele Wucker and I am a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute at The New School, where my research focuses on immigration and citizenship issues, particularly on how immigrants integrate into their host communities, on the policies that can promote or retard that process, and on the consequences. With Ron Hayduk, I am a co-founder and co-director of the Immigrant Voting Project (www.immigrantvoting.org), which documents and analyzes the initiatives to enfranchise non-citizens around the United States and the world, both throughout history and during a revival of the practice that began in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1990s through the present.
You’ve heard important testimony today about rights, democracy, and the ways that non-citizens would benefit from being given a voice in the city’s affairs. But I wouldn’t blame you, or your constituents, for asking, “What’s in it for me?”
All New Yorkers should care whether or not non-citizen New Yorkers can vote in city elections for the same reason that we care whether anybody votes at all. It’s not at all hard to see why people are alarmed that the voter turnout last week was below 40% and the lowest in five mayoral elections. Municipal voter participation reflects how much residents care about the city where they live and how much of a stake they feel they have. A recent New York Times Magazine article argued that, given that the likely benefit to any one individual of casting a vote is tiny, it’s a wonder that anyone votes at all. The broader community benefits far more than any individual does when he or she casts a vote.
In Fall 2003, the Los Angeles community of Lynwood, where 44% of voting-age residents are not citizens, discovered the hard way what happens when a large part of the community is disenfranchised. Taxpayers were funding Lynwood City Council members’ exorbitant salaries, fancy meals and junkets to Rio de Janeiro and Hawaii. The whole city suffered because the local government was not accountable to all of its residents.
When a city fails to create engaged local citizens, the consequences can be devastating, as has been happening in the immigrant suburbs of Paris. Similarly, the 1992 Washington Heights riots here in New York City were caused in part because community residents were isolated from the rest of the city and felt they had little say or influence over policies that affected them. The solution was to develop policies to address residents’ needs. In Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood in 1991, ethnically charged riots inspired several suburbs to respond by granting local voting rights to noncitizen residents as a way of making sure that their concerns were addressed before they reached a breaking point.
When I first heard about the idea of noncitizen voting rights, my reaction was similar to the one I often get today when I tell others about the work of the Immigrant Voting Project and the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights. Why would someone bother to become a citizen if they already enjoyed the right to vote? While it is an understandable reaction, because Americans are far more likely to vote in national elections than local ones, it also is mistaken. The New York movement, like many similar ones across the country, only involves city-level voting rights; you still must be a citizen to vote for, say, President of the United States.
Adopting a new nationality is an emotional and very personal decision. Legal residents must wait five years before they can even apply to become a naturalized citizen, a long and often frustrating process. For many immigrants, the big hurdle in deciding to apply for naturalization is emotional: when they say the Pledge of Allegiance, they want to mean it. They want to feel like they belong to a place before they do the paperwork and undergo a process that is so complicated and frustrating that only those who really want to be citizens will go through. Giving incipient Americans a voice in their communities is a way to create involved, educated citizens at the local level, which will encourage many of them to go on to become U.S. citizens as well. At the same time, by cultivating all immigrants as citizens of this great city, New York will benefit immensely by welcoming into our civic life even those individuals who may not ever naturalize.
Becoming a “citizen of the city” is very different, both emotionally and in terms of results, from being a citizen of a nation. While it is only logical to think long and hard before changing their nationality, people are arguably citizens of a new city the minute that they take a job, sign a lease, enroll their children in schools, or begin a school semester of their own. Everyone who lives in a city immediately have an interest in securing safe and clean streets, good schools, and reliable and affordable transportation and health care. City officials’ decisions have immediate and tangible effects on the daily lives of every single resident: whether we have to walk through garbage or pass by crack dealers on the corner, how long we have to wait at the bus stop or subway station. We cannot afford to wait until the newest New Yorkers become U.S. citizens to make them full citizens of the city.
All residents depend on their neighbors being willing and able to participate in making sure that elected officials know what their needs are and meet them. Last year, I moved to Washington Heights, a neighborhood that is heavily populated by recent immigrants who, because of their citizenship status, cannot vote. I had to depend on the “A” train, which I quickly learned was unreliable at best. But, because the residents of Washington Heights had only a limited political voice, nobody expected more frequent or reliable train service any time soon. Meanwhile, lower Washington Heights finally succeeded in ending the skip-stop 9 train and increasing 1 train service, a feat achieved only when the number of likely voters to be courted hit critical mass. I think about the businesses that depend on reliable transportation for their workers no matter what their citizenship status and about the citizens who cannot get the services they need because their neighbors have no voices. And in these examples, I hope that you too will see clearly the answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?”