Expand Non-Citizen Voting Rights in Local Elections

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In December 2021, the City Council of New York City voted to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. This new policy will permit more than 800,000 noncitizen residents to vote in city elections beginning in early 2023 and extends voting rights to green card holders and immigrants with work authorization who have lived in New York City for at least 30 days

Several other municipalities across the United States have also authorized noncitizen residents to vote in local elections. New York City joins nine cities in Maryland and two cities in Vermont in allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. Additionally, numerous other countries allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, including 17 countries in Europe. Some countries apply conditions to which noncitizens are allowed to vote, such as duration of residence, legal status, or registration.

Rather than permitting noncitizens to vote in all local elections, some US cities have instead prioritized allowing noncitizens to vote in school board elections. In 2016, San Francisco voters passed an initiative, Proposition N, to allow all parents or guardians of students in public schools to vote in local school board elections, regardless of legal status, beginning in 2018. (This law has been challenged in court, but in August 2022, the California First District Court of Appeals allowed the law to stand during the appeals process.) Chicago Public Schools allows non-citizen parents to vote and run in elections for local school councils. Advocates for this policy argue that, as taxpayers and consumers of public schools, parents and guardians should have a right to vote in elections that affect their children’s education.

Apart from these few cities, noncitizens cannot legally vote in any elections in most jurisdictions in the US, prohibiting them from engaging in a fundamental form of political participation. Despite lacking representation in government, noncitizens pay taxes, including property and sales taxes levied at the local level. In 2018, immigrants paid $492.4 billion in taxes nationwide, of which state and local taxes comprise $161.7 billion. “No taxation without representation” was one of the primary rallying cries of the American Revolution and is a principle on which the United States was founded. Undoubtedly, noncitizen immigrants are being taxed without having a voice in the selection of their elected representatives.

Historically, noncitizens living in the US were allowed to vote in certain states and localities. According to historian Ron Hayduk, “until 1926, 22 states and federal territories allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state, and even federal elections.” Noncitizen voting rights were gradually restricted as xenophobic sentiment grew in the US. 

While the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 bars any foreign national from voting in federal elections, it does not prevent noncitizens from voting in other elections if allowed by a state constitution or local ordinance. Legal scholar Joshua A. Douglas asserts that, “municipalities can expand voting rights in local elections if there are no explicit state constitutional or legislative impediments.” The US Supreme Court has supported this principle by explicitly permitting states to set their own laws regarding the rights conferred to noncitizens.

Many Americans view the right to vote as a privilege that should be reserved for birthright and naturalized citizens. This widely held belief is a primary barrier to the enactment of any policy that would allow noncitizens to vote. However, the naturalization process can be long and onerous, often spanning several years. Many noncitizens living in the US might choose to become citizens if the opportunity were more accessible to them. Conversely, not all immigrants living in the US want to become citizens, as becoming a US citizen might require a person to surrender their citizenship from their native country.

Following New York City’s lead, the City of Oakland should allow adult noncitizens to vote in local elections. As in most cities in the US, noncitizen immigrants living in Oakland currently lack the right to vote in local or school board elections. Without this right, noncitizens cannot express their preferences in elections that determine city leadership, the outcomes of initiatives, referendums, and bond elections, and the composition of local school boards. The results of these elections affect noncitizen immigrants and their children, who may be US citizens. They deserve to have a voice in how their city is governed.

If Oakland were to extend voting rights to noncitizens, it could make the local electorate more representative of the community as a whole, wherein immigrants make up a sizable portion of the population. The American Community Survey estimates that 32.5 percent of residents of Alameda County, or approximately 538,900 people, are foreign born. Of these foreign-born individuals, it is estimated that 45.9 percent are not naturalized U.S. citizens and therefore lack the voting rights awarded to citizens.

Noncitizens currently have some opportunities to engage with local politics by attending protests and addressing the government at City Council meetings, but these are political actions that a relatively low number of people—citizens or not—participate in. By being barred from voting in local elections, noncitizens are excluded from the most accessible way to participate in democracy, at the level of government with arguably the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives. Noncitizens also do not have the opportunity to hold their local leaders accountable at the ballot box. If given this opportunity, noncitizen residents might take a greater interest in their city’s government and politics, leading to an increase in civic engagement and more attention on (and greater accountability for) local officials. Councilmembers would likely become more responsive to their noncitizen constituents if they had electoral power.

There is reason to believe that the politics of Oakland would be conducive for this policy alternative to be adopted. Oakland, a self-declared “sanctuary city,” has been a leader in calling for more progressive immigration policies for years. Mayor Libby Schaaf and the Oakland City Council have demonstrated a commitment to protecting the rights of undocumented immigrants, Temporary Protected Status recipients, and refugees living in the city. For example, in 2019, the Oakland City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to prohibit the award of city contracts to vendors that work with federal immigration agencies, such as US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Mayor Schaaf vocally fought against the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies, including when she warned the local community in advance that ICE would be conducting a roundup of undocumented immigrants in the area.

In the 2022 midterm elections, Oakland residents will be voting on Measure S, which would allow noncitizen parents, guardians, and caretakers of children eligible to attend Oakland Unified School District schools to vote in the OUSD school board elections. If adopted, it is unclear, however, the extent to which this policy would lead noncitizens to actually participate in elections. In particular, undocumented immigrants might be less likely to register to vote or cast a ballot out of valid concerns that interacting with the government could lead to their potential deportation. In 2018, the first year that San Francisco allowed noncitizens to vote in school board races, only 49 noncitizens registered to vote ahead of Election Day. The City of San Francisco had warned residents about the potential repercussions of noncitizens voting, which likely deterred many newly eligible voters.  In the current political climate, noncitizen immigrants might choose not to vote in local elections even if eligible. This, in turn, would not lead to a significant increase in their political participation.

Despite this possibility, the Oakland voters should vote yes on Measure S and allow noncitizen parents and guardians to vote in OUSD school board elections. Adopting this policy would improve the representativeness of the local electorate, increase civic engagement, and potentially result in improved policy outcomes. If adopted, given the hesitancy some noncitizens might feel towards voting, OUSD and the City of Oakland should also take steps to encourage noncitizens to show up to the polls and make their voices heard.

Emily Jacobson is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and the 2022 co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal. Her policy interests include expanding voting rights, improving local service delivery, and enhancing public engagement with local government. She previously worked at NORC at the University of Chicago supporting evaluations of international development projects.