New York City could soon become the first major city in the country to give non-citizens the right to vote. The proposal, which would allow certain non-citizens to vote in local elections, appears to have a veto-proof majority in the New York City Council — enough to overcome opposition by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As hearings on the proposal get underway Thursday, supporters are optimistic it will become law by the end of the year and believe it will have an impact beyond the five boroughs.
“It’s going to be huge and just imagine the implications that are involved here,” Councilman Daniel Dromm, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation along with Councilwoman Gale Brewer, told TPM Wednesday.Currently, citizenship is a requirement for voters throughout New York state. This legislation, “Voting By Non-Citizen Residents,” would allow immigrants who are “lawfully present in the United States” and have lived in New York for “six months or longer” on the date of a given election to vote provided they meet all the other current requirements for voter registration in New York State. This means they must “not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction” and “not be declared mentally incompetent by a court.” For their first time voting, they must also provide identification including; “copy of a valid photo ID, current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check, or some other government document that shows your name or address.” Identification requirements would not remain after their initial vote. The bill only affects local races and calls for the registration forms provided to these “municipal voters” to specify that they “are not qualified to vote in state or federal elections.”
“This is extremely important, because it’s based on the founding principle of this country and that was, ‘No Taxation Without Representation.’ All of the people who would be included in this and would be allowed to vote are paying taxes, they’ve contributed to society,” Dromm said.
If the City Council passes the proposal, New York would be, by far, the largest city in the nation that allows non-citizens to vote. Non-citizen voting currently exists in multiple smaller municipalities in Maryland and Massachusetts. The locations that have passed immigrant voting in Massachusetts have been unable to implement it because they need state approval. According to Ron Hayduk, an author, professor at Queens College, and co-founder of the New York Coalition To Expand Voting Rights, who was part of the team that helped advise on the creation of the bill, contends that, as a charter city, New York would not need approval from the state. However, Hayduk acknowledged there is some dispute on that issue, which he said will be debated at a joint hearing conducted Thursday by the Council’s committees on immigration and governmental operations.
“There’s legal experts that are going to be testifying … that are going to make the case that New York City has the authority to enact this on its own and it will not come into conflict with any state law,” said Hayduk. “There may be others that dispute that and, if that’s the case, it may end up in the courts.”
One person who doesn’t believe the bill is acceptable under state law is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been a prominent advocate for other types of immigration reform in the past.
“The Mayor believes voting is the most important right we are granted as citizens and you should have to go through the process of becoming a citizen and declaring allegiance to this country before being given that right. That being said, this bill violates the State constitution and the Administration does not support it,” Evelyn Erskine, a spokeswoman for the mayor said.
However, Bloomberg’s opposition may not be enough to block the “Voting By Non-Citizen Residents” bill. It currently has the support of 34 of the Council’s 51 members, exactly the amount needed to override a veto by the mayor. Dromm first introduced the legislation in 2010 with the support of just eight council members.
There is one other person who could potentially block the bill despite its support: mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. After Thursday’s hearing, the bill would next need to be scheduled for a vote in committee. If is passes that vote, it would need to go to the council floor for a vote. As speaker, Ms. Quinn decides when bills come to the floor, effectively giving her power to stall legislation indefinitely. However, Dromm is bullish about the bill’s prospects.
“I’m optimistic both with the committee and on the floor and I would hope that we could pass this by the end of the year,” he said.
Jamie McShane, a spokesman for Quinn, said he doesn’t think she is expected to be at Thursday’s hearing, but is “looking forward to reviewing testimony after the hearing happens.”
For his part, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said he supports the bill both as the representative of a district with a large immigrant population and as someone who was an immigrant himself. Rodriguez said he came to America from the Dominican Republic in 1983 and gained citizenship in 2000.
“In those years, from the 80’s through the 90’s, I was doing exactly the same thing as someone who’s a U.S. citizen. … I was working hard, I was paying taxes, I went to school, I graduated, I became a teacher in 1993 when I got my green card,” explained Rodriguez. “I believe that we have a great opportunity to make New York City the first large city in the nation that would allow residents with green cards to vote in local elections.”
Dromm also argued the bill would improve civic engagement and force politicians to listen to the concerns of immigrant communities.
“For disenfranchised communities, people who have not been allowed to participate, who have not become civically engaged, this would be a huge move in the right direction,” Dromm said. “Having the ability to participate in elections would create a lot more civic engagement and, on a political level, I don’t think communities like the community that I represent, which is 68 percent immigrant, would ever be able to be ignored again by anybody running for major citywide office in New York City.”
New York is currently preparing for a mayoral election in November, but Dromm said he doesn’t “anticipate it being in effect” by then.
“I’m going to be honest with you, there are some issues that we need to work out in terms of its implementation with the Board of Elections and stuff,” said Dromm.
Along with the local implications, Hayduk said the passage of the bill would have a national impact — both in other cities that are considering proposals for immigrant voting and in the wider immigration reform debate.
“It would send a big message to the rest of the country and embolden campaigns which are ongoing in other places like San Francisco, and Portland, Maine, and Washington, D.C., and other places,” said Hayduk. “It would certainly be viewed favorably by immigrants’ rights advocates and be seen by other policy makers as another level of discussion about the whole business of the role of immigrants in the United States.”