Columnist Razvan Sibii: Non-citizen residents should be able to vote in local elections

It’s a simple, rock-solid democratic principle: If the laws of a community (especially tax and policing) affect you and your family over ...

It’s a simple, rock-solid democratic principle: If the laws of a community (especially tax and policing) affect you and your family over a reasonably long period of time, you should be able to have your say in the political and administrative life of this community. In a town like Amherst, where non-citizens make up more than 10% of the population, it stands to reason that immigrants who have not yet naturalized should be able to vote in local elections.

Before you ask, it’s perfectly constitutional to give non-citizens the right to vote, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld that. In 1996, Congress banned noncitizens from voting in federal elections. Some state constitutions explicitly tie voting in state elections to citizenship, while others do not. At the local level, some states allow cities to decide for themselves who should be able to vote in municipal elections, others explicitly prohibit cities from decoupling voting from citizenship, and still others are ambiguous about the whole question.

The “foreign vote” also passes the historical test. Unnaturalized immigrants voted across the United States, for all kinds of office, from the early days of the republic until the 1920s. True, their vote has always been contested by powerful political factions: first the slaveholders who feared that “ethnic whites” coming to America would side with abolitionists and freed slaves, and then conservatives who feared that Southern and Eastern Europeans would bring ideas to American politics. The last state to drop the franchise for noncitizens, Arkansas, did so in 1926.

Currently, 15 jurisdictions allow noncitizens to vote in some local elections: 11 cities in Maryland, two in Vermont, and the cities of San Francisco and Chicago (both of which allow noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections). ). Last December, New York City approved a measure allowing legally documented noncitizens to vote in all municipal elections, but a state Supreme Court judge struck it down last month. The decision is on appeal.

Amherst has also attempted at least four times in recent decades to enfranchise its thousands of residents who are not US citizens. Like other Massachusetts communities, however, it has hit a wall in the state legislature and the governor’s office, both of which must approve the petition. Goodwill in Amherst has not yet translated into goodwill in Boston.

Most “alien vote” initiatives target permanent residents (“green carders”), of whom there are approximately 12.3 million in the United States. Their daily lives are virtually indistinguishable from those of citizens, but they have no say in who represents them and how their taxes are spent. Most are eligible for naturalization, but they don’t complete the final step because the process is expensive, their country of birth might not accept dual citizenship, or they couldn’t pass the English test. (which is not mandatory for the green card, but it is for naturalization).

Those who oppose the suffrage argue that the Green Carders who fail to get the deal done simply haven’t shown enough commitment to America to deserve the vote. On the other hand, those advocating for suffrage say that giving permanent residents the right to vote would actually make them more invested in local governance.

That was certainly the case for Shalini Bahl-Milne, the only immigrant currently on the Amherst City Council, who told me she only became interested in local issues after becoming a citizen.

“When you don’t vote, you don’t feel like you belong in this city. You just live there, do your thing, go to school or earn money. Then when I became a citizen, I was like, ‘Oh, now I need to know what I’m voting on.’ At the time, Amherst was transitioning from the town assembly to the city council. Once I researched the issue, I became a volunteer. I became interested in educating my neighbours,” she said. “Then the city council was held and they were looking for candidates to run. A lot of people suggested my name because they saw that I was a new voice, an immigrant. I offered a point of view I feel that because I became a member of the local government, it was the first time as an immigrant that I felt a sense of belonging.

Indeed, local government officials also tend to recognize this dynamic, says Abigail Fisher Williamson, associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Connecticut.

“Appointed officials proactively welcome immigrants even before immigrants have had a chance to develop civic engagement,” Williamson said. “Despite everything the Trump administration tried to do to get cities to line up, they really didn’t. There were more places that came out and said, ‘We’re going to be a city sanctuary now!’ In this sense, the federal government does not seem able to squeeze local energy.

If small towns like Amherst and big cities like New York continue to harness this “local energy,” many 21st century blue states could finally embrace the blessings of tradition and return suffrage to their non-citizen residents.

Razvan Sibii is an associate professor of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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Newsrust - US Top News: Columnist Razvan Sibii: Non-citizen residents should be able to vote in local elections
Columnist Razvan Sibii: Non-citizen residents should be able to vote in local elections
Newsrust - US Top News
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