New York City’s city council recently passed an ordinance that will allow permanent residents and those with work permits to vote in municipal elections. It passed by a 33-14 margin.
Local elections in New York City have historically attracted low voter turnouts. A record-low 23% of New Yorkers voted in the 2021 mayoral election.
The proposed law would give more than 800,000 non-citizens the right to vote, dramatically changing the city’s electorate.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would not veto it, despite reservations about the bill. Mayor-Elect Eric Adams has championed the legislation and voiced his support while on the campaign trail.
Now the issue rests with the New York City Board of Elections, which decides how the ordinance will be implemented when it takes effect during the city’s next local election, in 2023.
“I understand if folks say, hey, I’m somewhere on the pathway to citizenship, I’d like to be more involved. I respect that. I do understand that impulse,” de Blasio said.
“But I also have feelings about the value of citizenship and wanting to encourage people to become citizens fully, and there’s a lot of people who do not pursue full citizenship, even though they can, and that to me is an issue.”
Legal battles ahead
The law is not yet a sure thing, though. Some Republican attorneys and council members in NYC have promised to file legal actions it.
“I believe fundamentally that the right to vote is part of being a citizen. And it should be exclusive to them,” said Councilman David Carr, a vocal critic of the change.
He believes that the New York state court will overturn it.
According to Carr, “You have an issue with the naturalization process or an issue with the way this country handles immigration more generally, your fight’s in Washington, not City Hall. We don’t get to have 50 immigration laws these days or thousands of different standards because of all the different municipalities that make up this country.”
“Allowing our elections to be decided by foreign citizens is unacceptable, and the RNC is looking closely at our legal options as we continue our fight to protect your ballot,” promised Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in a statement following the vote.
New York City is not the first to pass this type of legislation, New York City school board elections had allowed non-citizens to vote for over 30 years before the positions became mayor-appointed in 2009.
San Francisco has permitted non-citizens voting rights in school board elections since 2016, while cities in Vermont and Maryland have allowed voting in local elections since 2021 and 2017, respectively.
“I think it sends a strong signal that the essence of democracy is full participation. You can’t say non-citizens should not have certain basic rights and then make citizenship very difficult to obtain. And so we need to be consistent in making sure that the franchise and citizenship is accessible,” said Elizabeth OuYang, a civil rights attorney in New York City.
OuYang continued, “This notion of suffrage being dependent upon citizenship is misinformed. In the founding or our country, [voting] was not based on citizenship as much as it was based on wealth and gender…there’s nothing in New York State Constitution or New York City charter that bars non-immigrant, lawful permanent residents from voting in municipal elections.”
“If they [noncitizens] want to vote here, they should go through the process of becoming citizens because that is how you show real commitment to being a part of this city and this country,” said Council Minority Leader Borelli, voicing opposition to the legislation.
“The stakes are too high, the problems we face in this city are too big, for us to give away the most quintessential right of American citizenship to someone who has only lived here for 30 days.”