The debate about granting non-citizens the right to vote is not a recent one. It dates back to 1692 when non-citizens were allowed to vote and hold office in some states such as Maryland. However, this changed and non-citizens were no longer allowed to vote in national and federal elections. Lately, the issue has seen the renewed interest in many U.S. states.
Proponents argue that legal immigrants need to have a say in local governance since it affects them directly. They not only pay taxes but also face problems similarly faced by citizens. They argue that since these people participate in civic responsibilities, the government should be accountable to them, which can be ensured by allowing them to vote. Opponents on the other hand, argue that allowing non-citizens to vote is not fair since it undervalues the essence of citizenship. Currently, the U.S. Constitution does not ban non-citizens from voting. However, each state makes its own rules about the issue.
Should non-citizens be allowed to vote, then distinct outcomes are likely to be witnessed. For one, the racial proportions of elected leaders are likely to change. This is due to the fact that a majority of voters will still cast their vote according to racial preferences. In another way, it is likely to lead to what some scholars refer to as vote dilution. In this case, new immigrants or newly naturalized citizens may not be conversant with the American political landscape and their choices may therefore, be not a true reflection of other American citizens’ ideals.
Although advocates and activists are pushing more for non-citizen voting, statistics from areas where it has been practiced before show that the turnout may not be so high. This poses a problem since the benefits of allowing it may be unclaimed after much sacrifice. This research reviews scholarly sources to come up with a reflection of the current state of affairs on non-citizen voting. The research is majorly based on the following sources.
Bloemraad, I. (2002). The North American naturalization gap: An institutional approach to citizenship acquisition in the United States and Canada. International Migration Review, 36(1), 193-228.
Bloemraad uses data from Censuses conducted in the U.S. and Canada to show the naturalization gap between the two nations. Naturalization takes place much faster in Canada than in the U.S. Bloemraad states that current theories do not explain the differences and goes on to suggest that an institutional approach should be taken in addressing citizenship acquisition. Information from Bloemraad’s work is going to be used to show how naturalization is more of a hurdle in the U.S.
Munro, D. (2008). Integration through participation: Non-citizen resident voting rights in an era of globalization. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 9(1), 63-80.
Munro explores the institutional arguments used to give municipal voting rights to non-citizens and if they can be employed to integrate them into mainstream political life. Munro argues that allowing non-citizens to participate in voting will help minimize evils such as discrimination, and foster democracy. Munro’s views are used to highlight the plight of non-citizens in their quest to become integrated into the American society as well as the need to allow non-citizens to vote.
Renshon, S.A. (2008b). Allowing non-citizens to vote in the United States? Why not. Center for Immigration Studies. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2012 from http://www.cis.org/Non-citizenVoting
In this article, Renshon strives to question the basis of arguments put forth by proponents of non-citizen voting. He argues that the benefits of allowing non-citizen voting are mostly assumed and that a proper assessment needs to be carried out before putting them forward. He encourages a multifaceted approach in the analysis of political theories upon which arguments for non-citizen voting are based. This article is used in this paper to highlight the need to evaluate the consequences of allowing non-citizen voting before supporting or opposing them.
Hayduk, R. (2006). Democracy for all: Restoring immigrant voting rights in the U.S. New York: Routledge.
In this book, Hyaduk revisits the days when immigrants were allowed to vote. The book highlights the impact immigrant voting had in the American society. Hayduk also reviews the states where non-citizens are allowed to vote as well as the ongoing campaigns to grant non-citizens the right to vote. In this paper, the book is used to expound on the impact of allowing non-citizens to vote.
Castagna, M., Chen, W., Lawrence, J., and McHugh, S. (2005). Securing non-citizen voting rights: Determining the feasibility of enabling legislation in Massachusetts. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2012 from http://ase.tufts.edu/uep/degrees/field_project_reports/2005/4-securing_noncitizen_voting_rights.pdf
Castagna et al.’s work is a study to gauge the political feasibility of allowing different municipalities to determine the eligibility of non-citizens to vote. The authors use demographic statistics to substantiate their arguments on the need to enfranchise non-citizens based on their population and contribution to society. This source is used to support the arguments of proponents of non-citizen voting.
Should Non-Citizen Residents Have Voting Rights?
More and more states in the U.S. allow legal immigrants to participate in voting activities so as to incorporate them into civic life. According to Hyaduk and Wucker (2004), the population of persons residing in the U.S. but born outside the country makes over 10 percent of the total population. Although they work, pay taxes and send their children to school, these people cannot vote (Munro, 2008). Immigrant activists in most states push local governments to allow non-citizens to participate in municipal and school-board elections. Whilst some generally support the move to allow non-citizens to vote, others are more sceptical, stating that only those seeking the U.S. citizenship should be allowed to vote. Allowing non-citizens to vote is likely to motivate them to apply for citizenship so as to participate in federal elections. For America to be truly democratic, legal immigrants should be allowed to vote.
History of Non-citizen Voting
Throughout the history of the United States non-citizens were allowed to vote. According to Castagna et al. (2005) this dates back to as early as 1692, when non-citizens were not only allowed to vote but also hold office in Maryland. Other states that allowed non-citizens voting include South Carolina (1704) and Pennsylvania (1747). It was also allowed in the Northwest as early as 1787. Hyaduk and Wucker state that, “from 1776 until 1926, 22 states and federal territories allowed non-citizens to vote in local, state, and even federal elections but gradually repealed this right” (2004, p. 1). During the civil war, the action of repealing non-citizen voting rights was majorly fueled by anti immigrant sentiments that peaked during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more especially in the southern states. These anti immigrant sentiments were brought about by the immigrants’ opposition to slavery. After World War I Americans also wanted immigrants to prove their loyalty by supporting the U.S. before being allowed to vote.
Before the Civil War, voting was intertwined with ownership of property. Most non-citizens benefitted from this given that if people could vote provided that they owned land. The twentieth century saw a further decline in non-citizen voting. Castagna et al. state that of the 22 states and territories that allowed alien voting, only 11 remained. This number continued to decline steadily and by the year 1926, no state allowed non-citizen voting.
Non-citizen Suffrage in Recent Years
The issue of non-citizen voting has gained more popularity in recent years. Riots in Washington DC and other areas during the 1990s highlighted the need to allow non-citizen voting. Many people see non-citizen voting as a way of addressing the needs of non-citizens before they translate into bigger social problems. However, the issue has not been raised in federal voting, rather, it has been at the local level (municipal) and in school board elections.
In 1991, a non-binding referendum took place in Takoma Park, Maryland, regarding non-citizens’ voting rights. In New York City, non-citizens had been allowed to vote in school board elections since1970 before they (school boards) were done away within a recentralization effort (Hyaduk and Wucker, 2004). In Chicago, non-citizens were given the right to vote in school boards in 1988. In Washington DC, the bill seeking to allow non-citizens to vote was introduced by the city council in 2004.
Bases for the Argument on Non-citizen Voting
According to Renshon (2008b), those who support non-citizen voting largely depend on political theories as a reference point for their argument on separating voting from citizenship. The inappropriateness of their argument comes from the fact that there is no single political theory that can be referred to in order to address all the proposals. Different non-citizen voting proponents refer to equally different political theories that have varied perspectives on community membership, naturalization and acquisition of citizenship (Bloemraad, 2002).
Renshon (2008b) continues to note that a single theory can have different positions in a particular policy. For instance, the concept of rights has been used to argue that non-citizens also have the right to vote since they participate in community development and are directly affected by the decisions made by leaders they did not elect. In another way, the same concept can be used to argue that a community has the right to define standards of membership and decide which members have the right to exercise the electoral responsibilities. Therefore, this implies that using a political theory as a basis for non-citizen voting arguments is fallacious.
Finally, Renshon (2008b) observes that the mere fact that a political theory supports a particular policy position does not make it more valuable in an argument where other factors should be considered. In relation to non-citizen voting, political theories that support it should be viewed against factors such as the community’s culture and political system.
Arguments for Non-citizen Voting
Those who support the move to allow non-citizens voting argue that it is fair and democratic given that these individuals pay taxes, enlist for the military and participate in other areas of nation building (Munro, 2008). These individuals help to improve the quality of life in their localities by starting up essential businesses and fostering social interaction (Renshon, 2009). The proponents also argue that it (non-citizen voting) will make immigrants feel more welcome and hence participate more in nation building. Yet others say that allowing non-citizens participate in elections will allow them to learn more about the country and its political system.
Another argument put forward by proponents of non-citizen voters is that the process of naturalization, advocated for by opponents of non-citizen voting, takes long and is tedious. According to Castagna et al. (2005), naturalization can take from seven to twenty years in the best and worst cases respectively. As immigrants await naturalization, they pay taxes, raise children, build businesses among other contributions to the American society. During this period, the immigrants are denied the essential right to express dissatisfaction over poor governance, which is effectively accomplished through voting out incompetent leaders in exchange for promising ones. This therefore, implies that contrary to popular belief, naturalization is a barrier to freedom from political subjugation.
According to Hayduk (n.d.), one of the basic tenets of democracy is the social contract. The basis of the social contract is “the legitimacy of government rests on the consent of the governed. Members of a democratic community are rightfully obliged to obey the laws to which they are subject if they possess a means to participate in governance such as by voting” (p. 59). Therefore, since non-citizens are also directly affected by decisions made by legislators, they should be allowed to participate in electing them.
Proponents of non-citizen voting devalue the argument put forth by opponents that immigrants are most likely to be used in committing electoral fraud (on the basis of their inability to speak English or being poor and uneducated). The proponents argue that immigrants would most likely not participate in fraud due to the fact that they are likely to lose more if they are deported back to their mother countries.
Another reason why proponents are pushing for non-citizen voting is that non-citizens are prone to bias in such areas as education, employment and housing (Hayduk, 2006). Immigrants are also more prone to social evils such as racial discrimination since they as treated as aliens even in the electoral process. Hayduk quotes Jamin Raskin’s statement that groups can be more subdued if they are denied the right to vote. In reverse, they can achieve more freedoms if they are allowed to vote.
Arguments against Non-citizen Voting
Those who oppose non-citizen voting argue that it lowers the value of naturalization. This is hinged on the fact that non-citizens who have been allowed to vote would be let off from a naturalization examination. This therefore, undermines the essence of the naturalization examination which is meant to gauge an immigrant’s understanding of American history and civics (Renshon, 2008). In his own words, Renshon states: “proposals that would grant non-citizens the right to vote will severely curtail the importance of the naturalization process, and that process plays a pivotal role in the integration of new citizens into the American national community” (2008, p. 1).
Impact of Allowing Non-citizens to Vote
Although some may argue that non-citizen voting is non-existent, it has been there as early as elections were held. The effect of non-citizen voting is not easy to determine because ascertaining the number of those who are eligible to vote is not a mean task. This in is due to the fact that there exist disparate figures on the population of non-citizens. Some figures account for persons residing in the country illegally, some for those who have been recently naturalized while others account for all naturalized persons (Bloemraad, 2002). This therefore, means that whatever figures to be used will be mostly estimates.
Currently, more than 11 percent of the U.S. population consists of individuals born outside the United States. According to Hayduk (n.d.), most of these immigrants come from Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean. This has the consequence of changing the U.S. racial proportions, which in turn directly affects election outcomes. Some candidates have been known to rely on racial backing to win elections in metropolitan areas.
One crucial issue over non-citizen voters registration is the dilution of American citizens’ votes in state and federal elections. In this respect, opponents of alien voting state that it garbles the true reflection of the political desires of American citizens. Most immigrants have limited knowledge on the American political system, and therefore, their choices may not embody the ideals desired and upheld by native citizens. Also, non-citizens are most likely to be involved in electoral fraud in exchange of short term benefits such as bribery (Tichenor, 2002).
Immigrants who possess a voter registration card are most likely to benefit than those who do not. Other than giving one the eligibility to vote, the card can be used to obtain a driver’s license which in turn can be used for many other purposes. The card can also be used to qualify the owner for some jobs. The voter registration card has also been used by some aliens as a means to get benefits from unemployment compensation systems.
The Problem of Non-citizen Voters Failing to Vote
The benefits of allowing non-citizens to participate in voting are based on the assumption that they will participate in the voting process if allowed. However, statistics show quite the contrary. The number of non-citizen voters who participate in elections has been steadily declining in states where they have this privilege. This is considered to be a serious problem since the claimed rights that may have been seriously fought for would not be of benefit.
The claim that there is low turnout of non-citizens in places where they are allowed to vote is not just hypothetical. Results from voting stations show that many of them do not register. This can be attributed to the fact that some of the immigrants wish to “lie low”. Alarmingly even among the few registered ones, not all turn up to vote. Renshon (2008) states that another critical factor that complicates the matters, is that authorities do not have the exact figure of the number of voters who are eligible for registration, but did not register. To support the argument on the declining participation of registered non-citizen voters in election, Table 1 below shows statistics for seven elections held in Takoma Park, Maryland after the law allowing non-citizens to vote was passed in 1991.