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Boston considers becoming largest city to extend voting rights to noncitizens

The New England city could allow legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections.

A new American citizen, originally from Iraq, registers to vote immediately after a naturalization ceremony in Faneuil Hall, on June 7, 2018 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. More than 300 people became Americans. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
A new American citizen, originally from Iraq, registers to vote immediately after a naturalization ceremony in Faneuil Hall, on June 7, 2018 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. More than 300 people became Americans. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

The city of Boston is considering whether to allow immigrants with legal status in the United States to vote in local elections.

Boston’s City Council debated an idea Tuesday to extend voting rights to all of the city’s legal non-U.S. citizens, allowing them to participate in municipal races. Council President Andrea Campbell, who requested the hearing, pointed out that foreign-born residents make up 28 percent of the city’s population, and non U.S. citizens paid $116 million in state and local taxes and generated over $3.4 billion in spending, according to a 2015 city report.

“These residents that we’re aiming and talking about, are residents who lived in the city for some period of time, who send their kids to school, who run businesses and pay taxes, attend civic organizations,” Campbell said, according to the Boston Herald. “The goal is to have a conversation that will have many perspectives, including talking about the risk of doing something like this. … We cannot continue to hold rallies, or pass resolutions against President Trump — we need to do more.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Campbell spoke about how hard it is to read reports about the Trump administration separating and detaining families and sending immigrants back to their home countries. She said she has no authority over federal immigration policy, but she can do something to improve the lives of immigrants in her city.

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“I cannot keep going to rallies, marches, or sending resolutions to President Trump,” she said. “I don’t think he is reading them. This hearing is an opportunity to do more than that.”

Campbell has said that a proposal would extend to visa and green card holders, legal permanent residents, and immigrants under Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. According to the Herald, more than half of Boston’s City Councilors co-sponsored the proposal, including Ayanna Pressley, an at-large councilor and congressional candidate who indicated her support in a statement.

“Legal residents help drive our economy and add to the vibrancy of our communities, and I believe they deserve a say in who represents them at the municipal level,” she said. “I look forward to the hearing on Councilor Campbell’s proposal, and will continue to remain focused on ensuring that every Bostonian has a voice in their government.”

Ayanna Pressley speaks in favor of allowing immigrants to vote. CREDIT: Screenshot
Ayanna Pressley speaks in favor of allowing immigrants to vote. CREDIT: Screenshot

Councilor Ed Flynn said Tuesday he was open to debate, but that he opposes any initiative to extend voting rights to documented immigrants. He said getting citizenship is a “proud moment” for Americans and that the right to vote should be reserved to those that earn it. Others raised concerns that immigrants would accidentally or intentionally vote in state or federal elections as well, jeopardizing their efforts to obtain citizenship. Councilors also anticipated opponents claiming that allowing documented non-citizens to vote would allow for voter fraud.

Campbell responded to concerns that the right to vote is highly valued by American citizens, saying voter turnout rates in Boston prove otherwise. Pressley added that in the last municipal election, just 20 percent of registered voters turned out.

Some councilors were more ambivalent, but open to debate. Councilor Lydia Edwards said she is receptive to the idea of allowing non-citizen veterans to vote, but is still unsure about a broader policy.

A formal proposal still does not exist, and the Council did not vote on anything Tuesday. If the body were to pass legislation in the future, the bill would need to be signed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, approved by the state legislature, and signed by the governor because Massachusetts law requires that voters be U.S. citizens. Previously, some Massachusetts towns, including Cambridge and Amherst, passed similar resolutions to support noncitizen voting in local elections, but the state legislature did not approve them.

If a proposal passes and becomes law, Boston would be the largest city to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. Currently, several districts in Maryland including Takoma Park allow noncitizens to vote in city elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A representative from Takoma Park called into Boston’s hearing Tuesday, and spoke about the success of the town’s elections since 1992, when the it passed the resolution.

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Chicago allows legal noncitizens to vote in local school council elections, but only if the voter lives in the school district and has a child who is enrolled in the local school.

Other cities have launched campaigns similar to Boston’s, but have not had success. In 2015, New York‘s City Council considered a similar proposal to allow legal non-citizens who have lived in the city for six months to vote in municipal elections. Washington, D.C. and Connecticut have also considered bills.

Boston’s effort is already facing pushback from city residents who told Councilor Michael Flaherty they disapprove of the proposal, according to the Boston Herald.

“I got a lot of calls today from folks who are concerned we are watering down what it means to be a citizen of the United States and have the privilege to vote,” said Flaherty, the chairman of the Committee on Government Operations which held the hearing.

Councilor Kim Janey said during the hearing that she has already received disheartening feedback from Boston residents in response to the idea. She pointed out that anti-immigrant rhetoric isn’t only coming from Washington, but exists in her own community.