The Pro-Immigrant Case Against Noncitizen Voting
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I have always strongly supported immigrant rights and worked to protect immigrants, expand visa opportunities, and provide a pathway to citizenship for those who are here. A decade ago, I co-founded a bipartisan coalition of leaders to push for immigration reform, a group that recently merged with the American Immigration Council. And during my time as mayor, we created a program to help more New Yorkers apply for citizenship, which became a national model.
To me, being pro-immigrant has always meant incentivizing and rewarding citizenship — but some cities, unfortunately, are in danger of making it a less attractive proposition.
Generations of immigrants have sought U.S. citizenship to gain full access to the American dream, including all the rights and responsibilities that go along with it — chief of them, the right (and responsibility) to vote. But this month, the New York City Council voted 33-14 to authorize noncitizen voting. The bill would grant some 800,000 immigrants with green cards or work permits, and who have been living in the city for 30 days, the right to participate in elections for mayor, city council and other offices, as well as in local ballot questions.
The bill is likely to be challenged in court, because it conflicts with the plain language of the state constitution, which repeatedly uses the word “citizen” in its suffrage clause: “Every citizen shall be entitled to vote at every election for all officers elected by the people and upon all questions submitted to the vote of the people provided that such citizen is eighteen years of age or over and shall have been a resident of this state, and of the county, city, or village for thirty days next preceding an election.”
For good measure, the bill also appears to violate state election statutes, which list mandatory qualifications for voters: “No person shall be qualified to register for and vote at any election unless he is a citizen of the United States and is or will be, on the day of such election, eighteen years of age or over and a resident of this state.” This is hardly ambiguous language.
Should the plan somehow survive a legal challenge, there’s also the small matter of putting it in place. Ballots in local elections often include state offices (judgeships, for instance) and statewide referendums that noncitizens wouldn’t be eligible to vote for. Preventing noncitizens from voting on those matters would be extremely difficult under any circumstances. Leaving it to the city’s board of elections, a notoriously incompetent patronage mill, is a recipe for disaster.
Other jurisdictions may not face exactly these legal and logistical obstacles, but the biggest problem with noncitizen voting isn’t a legal or technical obstacle: It’s the way it devalues citizenship.
Proponents of the concept argue that voting gives the noncitizen more civic connections and a bigger “stake” in the community. This gets things precisely backward: Voting is a major reason many immigrants seek to obtain citizenship. They recognize that citizenship brings greater rights and responsibilities. If cities want more immigrants to become citizens — as they absolutely should — stripping away that incentive won’t help.
There’s no question that the route immigrants must travel to obtain citizenship is too slow and too restrictive. Fixing this process requires the White House and Congress to work with Republicans on a bipartisan deal, which noncitizen voting will make even more difficult and unlikely.
In fact, it will lend credence to the Republican argument that Democrats support immigration reform purely to pad their own voter rolls. This view is false, but pushing for noncitizen voting will only make it harder to refute, while also making the national conversation on the topic more toxic than it already is.
Immigrants deserve to be heard and protected. But that will not happen with local attempts to supersede the broken federal system. Instead, we must do the hard work of fixing it through federal legislation — without making that even more difficult than it already is.
Historically, incentivizing citizenship by combining it with the right to vote has benefited both immigrant communities and America as a whole — not only by integrating diverse cultures, but by cultivating a shared sense of purpose and national identity.
Local leaders should not attempt to break that compact. They should instead unite their efforts on Washington, so more immigrants have the opportunity to become full-fledged citizens — and voters.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.