With a 33 to 14 passing vote, the New York City Council gave more than 800,000 residents who are not citizens the right to vote in local elections. The new law is scheduled to take effect January 2023, should it survive expected legal challenges.
The law would put the Big Apple on a growing list of cities allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections, including two municipalities in Vermont, 11 towns in Maryland, and San Francisco, which permits it for Board of Education positions. Debate over the New York law has captured the spirit of the national discussion.
What do opponents say?
First, opponents argue it dilutes the power of a citizen’s vote.
Councilwoman Inna Vernikov opposed the bill, explaining that she immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was twelve, not knowing how to speak English. She is concerned this law has no mechanism to check that those voting are paying taxes and have good moral character.
“The right to vote is a sacred right and belongs squarely to United States citizens,” Councilwoman Vernikov said. “This is a slap in the face to those immigrants who worked so hard to attain United States citizenship so that they can have a say in our election process.”
Opponents also argue it goes against the state constitution. Mayor Bill DeBlasio expressed doubts about city’s authority to pass it, but said he will not veto it. Other council members voted against it for that reason.
“We do not have the legal authority to do this. We don’t,” Councilman Kalman Yeger said. “I wanted the legal authority to do a lot of things that I don’t have the legal authority to do. That’s life, that’s the oath we took.”
Other lawmakers disapproved because they felt the law needed improvements and should be sent back to committee for further scrutiny.
“We’re telling them they’re good enough to vote, but not good enough to hold office,” Council Member James Gennaro said. “They’re good enough to vote for mayor, but not be mayor. And to me, that’s kind of like a caste system there.”
What do supporters say?
Proponents say the green card and work visa holders the law is meant to benefit live and contribute to the city and therefore should have a vote.
“Expanding the right to vote for some folks does not in any way diminish or tarnish the right to vote for other folks,” Councilwoman Tiffany Caban said.
Councilman Francisco Moya appeared during the debate via video chat alongside his Ecuadorian mother. His family has always voted together, but his mother has never been able to participate.
“This one is for my ma and for about 900,000 immigrants that have truly made a difference in the lives of so many here in New York,” Councilman Moya said.
What did polls say about public support?
Recent polling shows a majority of New Yorkers strongly opposed the measure. According to a Remington Research poll, 52% strongly opposed, 9% somewhat oppose, 18% strongly support, 15% somewhat support, and 6% were unsure.
“Though polling shows the people of New York, the current voters, very much opposed giving the vote to non-American-citizens, the council followed their own personal political motivations,” American for Citizen Voting President Christopher Arps said in a statement. “This is a wake up call. All over the country, there is a push to give non-citizens the vote. I say instead of the politicians voting on it, let’s give Americans in every state a vote on this issue. Only citizens should vote.”
Who will be able to vote?
Under the New York law, a “municipal voter” is anyone who is either a lawful permanent resident or authorized to work in the United States, and has lived in the city 30 days prior to the election. The individual needs to meet all requirements for being able to register to vote except being a citizen.
Those who register successfully will also be allowed to enroll in political parties and be considered “qualified members” for taking part in primaries and the candidate nomination process.
The law directs the Board of Elections to come up with an implementation plan which includes separate ballots, because it is illegal for a non-citizen to vote in a federal election. In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act which expressly prohibited non-citizens from voting in federal elections. However, the law leaves the door open to contests at the local level.
“It shall be unlawful for any alien to vote in any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing a candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Resident Commissioner, unless – (2) aliens are authorized to vote for such other purpose under a State constitution or statute or a local ordinance…”