On Noncitizen Voting, New York City Blazes Another Trail

It’s not the first immigrant voting law in New York City or
elsewhere. For 40 years in New York City, immigrants with green cards or work
authorizations could vote in school board elections, until school boards were
disbanded in 2003. There are also 11 municipalities in Maryland and two
in Vermont that allow noncitizen voting
. San Francisco allows noncitizen voting in its school board
elections.

Moreover, it would probably surprise most people to learn
that it’s an old tradition with a long history in this country of what was once
called “alien suffrage.” Between 1776 and 1926, 40 states and territories allowed noncitizens
to vote in state, local, and even some federal elections. It was considered good
policy to attract foreign workers, specifically white men, to labor in the
frontier. Even the Confederacy, which at first feared alien suffrage would
swell the ranks of abolitionist immigrants, succumbed to immigrant voting to
attract workers after the Civil War.

So what changed? Immigration skyrocketed in the late 1800s, from places like Central Europe and Asia—people not considered white and who experienced the discrimination that comes with
the racist view of unfounded inferiority. Xenophobia at the end of World War I
became the death knell for the last remaining alien suffrage laws.

President Biden’s speech in Atlanta made a powerful and
devastatingly true statement about what he called “Jim Crow 2.0”: “It’s no
longer about who gets to vote; it’s about making it harder to vote.” Preventing
this has to be a central part of the fight for democracy. But “Jim Crow” also
included subjecting immigrants not considered white to varying degrees of
exclusion and segregation. And today it is one of the significant drivers of
the dialogue around who belongs and who doesn’t and, therefore, who should
have a say in this country and who shouldn’t. Expanding the debate and the very
practice of voting where we can is necessary. Noncitizen voting is one
way to help “spread the faith.”

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