Suffrage for non-citizens raises fundamental questions

It can be easy to forget that suffrage laws in the United States have changed a great deal over the years; indeed they have changed relatively recently. As a general matter, suffrage rights evolve to become more inclusive, but there is at least one group that, since the beginning of the 20th century, has lost the franchise in American elections: non-citizens. Once commonly accepted in the United States, non-citizen voting has been extinct since Arkansas became the last state to ban it in 1926. Although it is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, non-citizen voting is now explicitly prohibited in several state constitutions.

The controversy surrounding non-citizen voting is closely tied to ongoing debates over immigration, as well as the role of citizenship in a democracy. Reformers who are interested in expanding suffrage to non-citizens will have difficulty until the public comes closer to a resolution of these other two issues.

Historical Precedents

Whenever America undergoes a dramatic social change, voting rights are one of the first issues affected. After the abolition of slavery, African-American males got suffrage; in response to the first feminist movement, women got the vote; in response to their activism against the Vietnam War, 18- to 20-year-olds were afforded the franchise. As Ron Hayduk, author of Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States, told the HPR, “The business of democracy is evolving.” Who gets to vote is a fundamental question that is shaped by events and movements within a country’s history.

Throughout American history, non-citizens have faced opposition from movements often fueled by nativist sentiments. Around the turn of the last century, such an anti-immigrant movement permanently annulled non-citizen participation in state elections. Will Everitt, Maine state director of the League of Young Voters, told the HPR, “The turn-of-the-century anti-immigration wave is not unlike the anti-immigration wave going through America today.”

But according to opponents of voting reform such as Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the present is much different from the past. “The United States in 2010 is not the same as the United States in 1850,” von Spakovsky told the HPR. “In the 1800s we were encouraging as many people as we could to come here and help settle.” In such circumstances, it made sense to offer them the vote as an enticement.

Rite or Right?

The relationship between voting rights and citizenship is often contentious. Reformers believe that non-citizens, who are often just as involved in their communities as citizens, should be afforded equal voting rights. Opponents of voting-rights expansion argue that voting is the crux of citizenship and should be limited to those who have lived and worked in the country for a substantial amount of time. Because the Constitution does not contain a citizenship requirement for participation in state or local elections, the debate over the voting rights of non-citizens is very open-ended.

Opponents of non-citizen voting rights also argue that immigrants should put in the work to obtain citizenship if they hope to indulge in its benefits. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told the HPR, “The idea that we are somehow looking down at immigrants by not letting them vote until they jump through very easy hoops is willfully incorrect.” The Federation for American Immigration Reform echoed this sentiment in an emailed statement to the HPR, arguing that fulfilling the citizenship requirement is a necessary step to becoming “fully participating members of American society.” Similarly, von Spakovsky asked, “If immigrants really want to become part of their community, why don’t they make the commitment to become U.S. citizens?”

But many proponents of non-citizen voting respond that the citizenship process itself needs to be reformed. According to Everitt, becoming a citizen requires the immigrant to “work hard, pay thousands of dollars, wait a number of years, [and] take tests that have nothing to do with your basic role in society.” Hayduk agreed, explaining, “The issue’s not about knowledge, it’s about access.” That is, an immigrant might know enough to contribute helpfully to community decision-making, but still be unable to attain citizenship. Michael Kang, an associate professor at Emory University School of Law, summed up these arguments, telling the HPR that non-citizens “are members of the community… [and] they have a stake in that community.”

A Larger Movement?

Non-citizen voting rights surfaced on municipal ballots in both San Francisco and Portland, Maine, this election cycle, and according to Hayduk, New York City is also going to introduce legislation soon. Noting that campaigns to “restore voting rights to immigrants often come in clusters,” Hayduk sees the movement in the United States as part of “a big trend worldwide to provide voting rights to non-nationals.” The role non-citizen voting plays in the current immigration debate, both Hayduk and Everitt agree, will give greater visibility to the broader issue of immigration reform and “how we can include various groups in the community,” in Hayduk’s words.

Opponents of non-citizen voting, on the other hand, tend to separate this issue from any larger social or political movements. As Krikorian said, “[It’s] just the kind of thing that crops up here and there.” For Krikorian, voting is “the key attribute of citizenship.” Von Spakovsky agrees. He would “like every state to pass a statute that requires that, when you register to vote, you provide proof of citizenship.” Von Spakovsky summed up his ideal: “You don’t get the rewards of citizenship until you have become a citizen.”

The Bigger Picture

Daniel Tokaji, a professor at the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, told the HPR that the argument for non-citizen voting is stronger “in situations where there are legal obstacles” standing in the way of immigrants becoming full citizens. Tokaji foresees that the debate over non-citizen voting will be nestled into a larger discussion about citizenship. He believes that addressing the naturalization process might therefore be an appropriate first step, but will by no means resolve the issue. As Kang noted, “One can imagine that this particular debate is complicated by what some people would call an anti-immigration sentiment.” Indeed, just as strong anti-immigration sentiment eliminated non-citizen voting in the early 20th century, the resurgence of this sentiment today, amid the economic downturn, is an additional impediment for reformers.

The resolution of the non-citizen voting question, then, is closely linked to the resolution of the broader immigration debate, which has been stagnating for years. As the makeup of this nation changes, it may soon be time again for the makeup of the electorate to change with it.

Simon Thompson ’14 is a Staff Writer.

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