As New York City considers whether to expand the franchise to non-citizens, it’s instructive to look at the experience other municipalities, like Takoma Park, Maryland, have had with non-citizen voting.
ThinkProgress spoke with two experts on non-citizen voting: Montgomery County (MD) Council member George Leventhal and Maryland State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D). Both individuals helped initiate Takoma Park’s non-citizen voting policy in 1991.
Here are the main issues and concerns with expanding voting rights to non-citizens:
Why is non-citizen voting important? After the 1990 census, Takoma Park went about redistricting its wards to reflect the new population numbers. The wards were drawn to include equal numbers of residents, but, as Raskin, who sat on the commission, noticed, some wards had twice the number of voters. The reason: some wards had high numbers of non-citizen voters. As a result, voters in wards without many non-citizen residents found their vote worth half as much as those elsewhere. Ignoring non-citizens when drawing the boundary lines in an attempt to circumvent this problem is prohibited by the Supreme Court. As a result, the commission proposed a city-wide referendum to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections, which passed in February 1992.
Non-citizens can only vote in local elections. Perhaps the most important part of non-citizen voting is that non-citizens are only allowed to vote in local elections. There are valid reasons to want federal elections, which have a big impact on our nation’s foreign policy, decided only by American citizens. But, as Leventhal explained to ThinkProgress, “If you live in a town, you’re interested in getting your garbage picked up and your property taxes.” In other words, parochial matters like city services and local taxes impact both citizen and non-citizen residents alike.
There is a long history of non-citizen voting in the United States. Non-citizen voting may feel weird. It shouldn’t. For most of American history, non-citizens were permitted to vote in 22 states and federal territories. It wasn’t until the 1920s that, amidst anti-immigrant hysteria, lawmakers began to bar non-citizens from voting.
What impact has non-citizen voting had on local policies? “Very little,” according to Leventhal. He noted that critics of the proposal argued in 1991 that if Takoma Park legalized non-citizen voting, the city would soon become a “welfare magnet” where non-citizens would supposedly vote for massive new benefits that would attract more non-citizens, creating a cycle. But in the past 20 years, Leventhal notes, non-citizen voting has “had virtually no effect on the policies of the cities.” Raskin agreed: “it hasn’t been a transforming event in the life of the city.”
Does it cost a lot? No. Because non-citizens can only vote in local Takoma Park elections which take place in odd-numbered years, there’s no need to print separate ballots. Non-citizens register and vote on the same ballot as everyone else, rendering the cost trivial.
Will it lead to non-citizens fraudulently voting in federal elections? No. Like New York City, Takoma Park elections are held in odd-numbered years and don’t coincide with state or national elections.
Would it work in a city the size of New York? Non-citizens make up more than one-third of New York’s population, meaning a massive chunk of the city’s taxpayers are currently disenfranchised. Raskin doubts that New York’s experience would be much different from Takoma Park’s, for a few reasons. First, the non-citizen population tends to be fairly transient. Second, they tend to be disproportionately poor, a contributing factor in their low turnout rates in other municipalities.
How do non-citizens feel about the initiative? Like citizen voters, turnout among non-citizens is abysmally low. For example, in 2009, 436 non-citizens were registered to vote in Takoma Park, but just 32 cast a ballot. That’s even lower than the already-low turnout rate of 16 percent among citizens of Takoma Park. On the other hand, Raskin notes that those non-citizens who do cast a ballot are very grateful for the opportunity. Many are foreign businesspeople, or diplomatic personnel, or employees at the World Bank. “It makes them feel like they’re part of the community,” Raskin said, noting that local citizens also want to embrace foreigners in the area because “there’s a neighborly dimension to this.”
Many other countries allow non-citizens to vote. At least 20 countries give non-citizens the right to vote. They include a broad range of nations, from Denmark to Chile to New Zealand.