Photo by Isiah Holmes
A few cities and towns around the U.S. are letting noncitizens vote in local elections, and more could follow. In response, Republicans see a chance to turn opposition to noncitizen voting into a national rallying cry.
On March 14, Washington, D.C., became the latest city to approve noncitizen voting, when a bill allowing the District’s roughly 42,000 noncitizens, including those who are undocumented, to vote in municipal elections became law after a bid by congressional Republicans to overturn it fell short.
A day earlier, a group of prominent conservative voting activists held a Washington, D.C., press conference to promote what they called a national campaign to “protect voting at all levels of government as the exclusive right of citizens.” Republicans also have introduced legislation in Congress that would withhold election funding to states where local governments have enfranchised noncitizens. And a separate GOP measure would amend the Constitution to ban the practice.
This crusade is designed in part to push back against efforts to give noncitizens the right to vote, an idea that generally polls badly with most voters. But it could also reinforce a broader set of fears, stoked in recent years by former President Donald Trump and other party leaders, that American elections are threatened by illegal voters.
The District of Columbia isn’t alone in embracing noncitizen voting. In January, the Vermont Supreme Court greenlit the practice for two Vermont cities, including the state capital, Montpelier, rejecting a Republican lawsuit.
And on March 9, the state’s largest city, Burlington, voted to allow noncitizen voting, though the state legislature still needs to approve the change. Since 2016, San Francisco has let noncitizens vote in school board elections. Eleven Maryland towns also enfranchise noncitizens, the most recent in 2018.
Other cities, including Boston and Los Angeles, have seen efforts to do the same in the last few years. In 2021, New York City passed a bill that would have allowed by far the largest single number of noncitizens to vote, but it was struck down by a court as unconstitutional last year, after another GOP lawsuit. Appeals are ongoing.
A Democratic state lawmaker in Connecticut has introduced a bill to allow noncitizens to vote in state elections, though he has said he knows it won’t pass, and the goal is simply to spark debate.
Opponents amend state constitutions
This push for noncitizen voting rights has spurred a vigorous response from opponents. Since 2020, five states — Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and, in December, Louisiana — have amended their constitutions to make clear that only citizens can vote in elections at any level. Arizona, Minnesota, and North Dakota have similar language.
The clash over the District of Columbia’s bill, which was passed in October, has been among the fiercest.
“Our noncitizen residents are paying taxes, enrolled in school, working here in the District of Columbia, and involved in community affairs,” said Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, the bill’s sponsor. “And without this legislation, they don’t have a voice in our elections, which is essentially one of the most fundamental things in our country.”
But in a letter to District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, several GOP members of the House of Representatives said the legislation “fundamentally violates American sovereignty,” calling it “a disgraceful episode in the District’s history.”
In February, the U.S. House passed legislation 260-162 to overturn the District’s measure, which Congress is empowered to do under the 1973 District of Columbia Home Rule Act establishing the city’s autonomy. It was the first time the House had voted to overturn a District bill since 2015. Forty-two Democrats voted with Republicans.
But the U.S. Senate didn’t take up the House’s measure, and on March 14, Congress’ 30-day window to overturn a District bill expired, meaning the law went into effect.
In arguing against the District bill, Republican leaders often focused on its potential to enfranchise employees of foreign governments.
“Today, in D.C., somebody who is a Russian citizen working at the [Russian embassy] can vote in D.C. elections,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., told reporters on March 8. “A CCP member working at the Chinese embassy can vote in D.C. elections. That shouldn’t be the case.”
In some instances, opponents in Congress have misstated the effects of the bill.
“Does anybody in this country think that someone working for the Chinese embassy here in Washington, D.C., should be voting in the presidential election?” asked House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., in a Feb. 8 Fox News appearance. “Absolutely not. It’s insane, what they did.”
In fact, the District law applies only to local elections. Federal law bars noncitizens from voting in federal elections. Emmer’s office didn’t respond to an inquiry about the misstatement.
The District debate has played out amid a broader conflict between Congress and the city.
The Senate on March 8 cleared a House-passed bill that would overturn the District’s rewrite of its criminal code, which had been a product of a years-long review and would have reduced penalties for some crimes, among other steps. President Joe Biden has said he’ll sign Congress’ overturn bill, angering District leaders and many Democrats.
“Our disenfranchisement is on full display right now,” said Nadeau. “So we’re expanding voting rights here while our autonomy is under attack. It’s a pretty spectacular juxtaposition.”
A long history of noncitizen voting
It might seem like a new idea, but noncitizen voting has been around as long as the Republic, though state laws governing it have swung back and forth several times.
Both before and after the Revolution, all property-owning white men could vote, and many noncitizens did so. The practice was then phased out in many places, but it saw a resurgence in the middle of the 19th century, when at least 16 states passed measures to allow noncitizen voting, often to incentivize workers to move to less populous, Western states.
Then, beginning in the 1870s and lasting into the first decades of the 20th century, states gradually began repealing these laws. This retreat from non-citizen voting came amid a wider push in the Northeast to restrict voting by recently arrived Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, regardless of citizenship status, who were seen as less educated and responsible than the white Protestants who until then had predominated.
During the same period, Southern whites were passing Jim Crow laws to crack down on voting by recently enfranchised Black citizens. Nebraska was the last state to repeal its noncitizen voting law in 1926.
In this century, the issue has resurfaced in some communities where the number of noncitizens has grown quickly. In New York City, it took on a new level of urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic because so many frontline workers were noncitizens, said Nora Moran, the policy and advocacy director for United Neighborhood Houses, which advocated for the bill there.
“Largely, the people who were working in our hospitals, delivering our food, keeping people safe, had no ability to vote on the policies that lawmakers were making that directly impacted their health and safety,” said Moran. “So COVID underscored the importance of the bill for us.”
This resurgence has given Republicans the chance to expand the issue onto the playing field of national politics.
On March 2, Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., who founded and chairs the House Election Integrity Caucus, introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment barring noncitizens from voting in elections at any level.
Three days earlier, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, sent a letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy urging Congress to pass five conservative voting measures, including a constitutional amendment banning noncitizen voting. Since 2021, Raffensperger has been pushing for a similar amendment to Georgia’s constitution.
And an oversight plan approved in late February by the Republican-led U.S. Committee on House Administration included a pledge to “investigate how states and localities that allow noncitizens to vote ensure that federal funds are not used to facilitate noncitizen voting.”
That built on sweeping elections legislation introduced in July by Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., that contained a provision penalizing states where local governments allow noncitizens to vote, by cutting their share of federal election funding by 30%. Davis’ measure also would require that these states keep separate voter rolls for state and federal elections, and would bar them from using federal funds to maintain state rolls containing noncitizens.
The March 13 press conference promoting a national campaign against noncitizen voting was organized by Americans for Citizen Voting, which was founded by the Missouri Republican strategist Christopher Arps, and helps states amend their constitutions to ban noncitizen voting.
Arps was joined by three leaders of the broader conservative push for stricter voting rules: Hogan Gidley, a former Trump campaign spokesman who runs the elections arm of the America First Policy Institute, a Trump-aligned think tank; Christian Adams, whose organization, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, has often sought to raise the alarm about illegal voting by noncitizens; and Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, who chairs the Election Transparency Initiative, which supports tighter voting policies and opposes reforms to expand access.
As that lineup suggests, these efforts appear designed in part to fold the practice of legal noncitizen voting in local elections into the existing Republican campaign to raise concerns about rare cases of illegal voting in state and federal elections, including by noncitizens.
On Jan. 31, Emmer and other congressional Republicans sent a letter to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon asking him to “to investigate claims that DACA recipients and other non-citizens are voting in Minnesota’s elections.”
At times, opponents of noncitizen voting have sought to conflate the two issues.
“When illegal aliens and felons vote, when identity thieves cast votes of registered voters, or cast them on behalf of people long deceased, the votes of legitimate voters are diluted or diminished,” Arps wrote in a 2019 op-ed launching Americans for Citizen Voting.
Moran, of United Neighborhood Houses, said her group has encountered this kind of conflation as it has advocated for the New York City bill. But, she added, noncitizens in fact tend to be especially anxious to follow the law.
“The people who are following voting rules most closely are often noncitizens,” Moran said. “Because they don’t want to do anything that could jeopardize their ability to pursue citizenship or other kinds of status down the line.”
Still, Moran added, since the New York City bill passed, her organization has heard from local advocates across the country looking for guidance on how to craft their own bills. The calls have come not only from big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, she said, but also from a group of small towns in Maine that are resettling refugees.
“So for us, it’s been very heartening,” Moran said, “that, at a time when there’s a lot of backlash against voting rights, when there’s a lot of rhetoric around migration and who is coming to this country, that there are groups who are interested in making sure that new people coming to our country can participate in civic life and make their communities better.”
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