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New York has long suffered from abysmal voter turnout, and this election cycle so far hasn’t provided much cause for optimism. Hopes of a post-Trump voter engagement bump in the September primaries were dashed as 14 percent of registered Democrats turned out for the only contested mayoral primary, the lowest percentage since 2009. Primaries have lower turnouts than general elections, but if the 2013 election was any indication — at 24 percent of registered voters, it was the lowest recorded turnout in the city’s history — barely one-eighth of the city’s overall population will turn out to pick our next chief executive today.
There is, however, one very large group of people who would be especially motivated to cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, if not for one little catch — they’re not legally allowed to. New York City has the largest foreign-born population of any city in the nation by far; of these, about 1.5 million were noncitizens as of 2011, nearly the size of the entire population of Philadelphia. As New York faces a choice for mayor featuring two candidates who voted for Donald Trump, one of whom sued to preserve a municipal ID database that activists worry could be a tool for deportation, noncitizen immigrants are left to push and organize but not, ultimately, to decide.
“I feel embarrassed when people say, ‘Are you going to vote?’ ’’ says Namrata Pradhan, an organizer with the community rights group Adhikaar. Formerly a human rights lawyer in her native Nepal, she currently holds an immigration designation called Temporary Protected Status, a program that grants temporary immigration status to citizens of eligible countries hit by natural or man-made disasters; the Trump administration is currently considering looking to end the program for some immigrants from Central America and Haiti.
“Here we are, paying taxes, and we have knowledge of politics,” she says. “That word ‘eligible’ haunts me.”
Noncitizen voting isn’t a particularly new idea, and it hasn’t always been controversial. In fact, New York City was the first municipality to extend some of the franchise to all residents, in elections for the school board system it created in 1969. “It was one of the thrusts of the Civil Rights–era movement for greater community control,” explains Ron Hayduk, a researcher who worked on the campaign for noncitizen voting as a CUNY professor before moving to San Francisco. “It allowed any parent of a kid [in city public schools], regardless of status, to vote.”
The boards were dissolved in 2002 by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, and there hasn’t been any noncitizen voting in New York since. In the meantime, multiple other municipalities have moved ahead with variations of the policy. Takoma Park, Maryland, a city of about 17,000, gave full municipal voting rights to noncitizen immigrants in 1992, and several other cities and towns in the state have since followed suit. San Francisco voters recently approved allowing noncitizens to vote for the city’s school board.
The modern campaign to bring noncitizen voting to New York City began in earnest after the end of the school boards with the formation of the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights — abbreviated as iVote — a loose group of several community groups and activists, including the New York Immigration Coalition, Make the Road New York, MinKwon Center for Community Action, and the Black Institute. Since 2005, bills have been introduced to the City Council three times to allow legally present city residents — a bit over a million out of the total noncitizen population — to vote in municipal elections, with the most recent proposal made by Queens councilmember Danny Dromm.
“Noncitizen voting is actually a restoration of rights. Noncitizens have been voting in this country longer than they haven’t,” says Brooklyn councilmember Jumaane Williams, a supporter and sponsor of the 2010 bill, who is also running for the speakership of the City Council. Bloomberg opposed the idea, but supporters believe they had enough council votes to override a veto, if only Bloomberg ally and then-Speaker Christine Quinn had ever put it up for a vote.
Current mayor Bill de Blasio, who is running for re-election, has previously said he does not support the bill in its current form, but is open to having a conversation on the subject with councilmembers and activists. It doesn’t seem like activists should be holding their breath; in response to an inquiry, mayoral spokesman Seth Stein said “noncitizen voting is an idea we are evaluating but not supporting at this time.”
“We just thought that they would move this forward, and Mayor de Blasio would be supportive, because he was supported by the Progressive Caucus, and the Progressive Caucus had it as one of their thirteen big ideas,” says Hayduk, referring to a 2013 document put out by the caucus and allied organizations that outlined legislative priorities.
The bill has already somewhat been watered down from iVote’s initial proposal, which called for all immigrants, regardless of immigration status, to gain the right to vote in city elections. “Because this was soon after September 11, they said, ‘No undocumented, just legal residents, right?’ ” says Hayduk, recalling the group’s conversations with sympathetic councilmembers. “And we said, ‘No, we were thinking about everyone.’ And they said, ‘Look, that’s unfeasible.’ ”
As for a possible mayoral veto override, it’s not one that the bill’s proponents have been able to test. Current term-limited Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has technically remained a sponsor throughout her speakership, has never put the measure up for a vote. A Mark-Viverito spokesperson did not return requests for comment on the state of the legislation or conversations with members.
“There’s a ton of concerns from other members, and we have to figure out what to do with it,” says Williams, adding that it was likely a simple result of councilmembers prioritizing issues like affordable housing, education, jobs, and policing. “I will say there’s probably thousands of bills that haven’t been brought up.”
Ironically, the election of a president and establishment of a federal machinery openly hostile to immigrants may actually be slowing the process, as activists turn their attention to more urgent threats like the elimination of the DACA program, the attempts to kill the diversity lottery visa, and stepped-up deportations nationwide. One organizer with iVote, who did not want to be named in speaking candidly about the campaign, referenced psychologist Abraham Maslow’s concept of a hierarchy of needs, where an individual must meet his or her basic physiological necessities first before worrying about social needs. Having the opportunity to participate in the city’s civic life seems less pressing when you have to worry about losing your work authorization or being deported.
This person also worried about providing ammunition to the Trump administration, which has already claimed, falsely, that millions of noncitizens voted in last year’s presidential election, and suggested that passing a noncitizen voting provision in New York City could be “red meat” for people like Kris Kobach, the virulently xenophobic Kansas secretary of state and a member of Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
There are also more practical concerns, including whether such a move would even be legal under state election law. The law states that “no person shall be qualified or register for and vote at any election unless he is a citizen of the United States,” but also makes clear that more specific provisions of law, including local laws, supercede state law unless explicitly stated otherwise. State law also requires that any changes to “the method of nominating, electing, or removing an elective officer” be put to a referendum; proponents argue that allowing noncitizens to vote is not a change to the process, just to who can participate. As the case has never gone before a judge, there has yet to be a ruling on either question.
Even if a noncitizen voting bill passed, it would require some delicate and potentially costly changes to the city’s election system. For one, the city would have to ensure that any eligible immigrants did not accidentally vote in any state or federal elections, which would not only be illegal, but could even result in deportation measures against those who accidentally voted. Preventing this would likely require the printing of specialized ballots and the retraining of poll site staff.
There’s also the matter of voter registration. Would there be distinctions in the rolls between noncitizens and citizens? Given the public nature of voter rolls, would this be a violation of immigrants’ privacy? If the legislation came to encompass undocumented immigrants as well, any distinction in the voter rolls could inadvertently put targets on the back of every undocumented voter.
Hayduk, who participated in the push for San Francisco’s recent successful ballot measure to allow noncitizens — including undocumented immigrants — with children in the school system to vote in school board elections, says that some organizers are worried about the initiative’s viability. “People are now saying, ‘Yikes, what did we win?’ ” he says. “The voter registration list is public, and we’re having a hard time insulating people from potentially being exposed.”
In Takoma Park, the municipal authorities have been dealing with these issues for more than two decades. Takoma Park city clerk Jessie Carpenter explains that the city kept its election process “completely separate and apart” from the state’s. As with New York City, elections in Takoma Park are off-year, and do not generally coincide with state and federal elections. “We just combine our list with the supplemental list we get from the state — it’s really seamless,” she says. “The experience is exactly the same for everyone.” The public rolls do not reveal anyone’s immigration status.
George Leventhal, now a member of Maryland’s Montgomery County Council who is running for county executive, was in 1991 a private citizen and one of the key figures in bringing the issue of noncitizen voting to Takoma Park’s voters. “At the time, 26 years ago, the question of protecting immigrants from immigration enforcement didn’t really come up,” he says. The campaign succeeded, he notes, by making clear that “we were not talking about electing members of Congress or the president of the United States, who are making decisions on behalf of the United States. We were talking about garbage collection, and the police.”
Looking back, Leventhal believes that extending the franchise to noncitizens didn’t end up making much of a difference in Takoma Park. “I would love to romanticize it and say it led to some utopia of inclusivity, but no,” he says. Ultimately, voter participation even among citizens is low, and granting noncitizens access to the polls doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll become engaged or that elections will matter to them.
One person it would matter to is Perla Canales. The Honduran mother of four lives in Staten Island, where she works as a cleaning lady. Standing in front of the imposing Jacob K. Javits Federal Office Building just north of City Hall, where activists held a rally yesterday to call for Trump to extend Temporary Protected Status, Canales shook her head mournfully. “How does it make me feel not having the vote?” she said in Spanish. “It makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel like nothing.”