PERSPECTIVE ON DEMOCRACY : A Vote for All, Citizen or Not : A Maryland town decides that residents, regardless of nationality, deserve a say in how they’re governed locally.
This is a small town with a big idea. Last Tuesday, voters here approved a measure to extend the right to vote in municipal elections to residents who are not American citizens. It is a controversial idea but, if picked up by larger cities--like Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Houston--it could strengthen American democracy by including in the crucial processes of local government many hundreds of thousands of people born elsewhere who have made their homes in American communities.
The genesis of Takoma Park’s Share the Vote campaign was in the city council’s decennial redistricting process, which by law is based on ward residency. While all new wards had equal numbers of residents, Takoma Park found that, because of a large non-citizen population, some wards had far fewer eligible voters than others.
This imbalance focused attention on the fact that city residents born in other lands have all the obligations of Takoma Park citizenship but lack the right to vote. They pay property taxes and sales taxes. They spend untold hours sorting their garbage into esoteric recycling categories. They call the police and fire departments. Their children go to city schools and play in city parks.
The redistricting task force came to believe that the exclusion of non-citizens from suffrage offended two basic democratic principles: no taxation without representation, and the idea in the Declaration of Independence that government justly derives its powers from “the consent of the governed.” So Takoma Park decided to put the question to a vote: Should all residents be allowed to vote in local elections regardless of their citizenship status?
It was an uphill campaign, demanding intensive public education. People were surprised to learn that the plan was constitutional and deeply rooted in American history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many states, eager to find new residents, gave non-citizens full voting rights. In an 1874 case (Minor vs. Hapersett) the Supreme Court referred approvingly to this practice, pointing out that citizenship is not “a condition precedent to the enjoyment of the right of suffrage.” The court stated that “in Missouri, persons of foreign birth” who are not American citizens “may vote in state elections under certain circumstances. The same provision is to be found in the constitutions of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas.”
Many American cities permit non-citizen voting. In New York and Chicago, parents of children in public schools may vote in school board elections regardless of citizenship. The town of Somerset, Md., has permitted non-citizen voting in local elections for decades. Nor is non-citizen voting uncommon abroad. Venezuela allows it in national elections and Sweden permits it in local elections. Jerusalem permits non-Israeli citizens to vote in municipal elections. In a world filled with stateless people, there is a profoundly humane logic to this global trend.
Still, many Takoma Park residents could not get over the proposal’s novelty. One man at the subway told me that “they shouldn’t vote because they’re not citizens--period.” I urged him to look up the meaning of “citizen” in the dictionary. The primary definition is “an inhabitant of a city or a town.” The second and logically distinct definition is “a member of a state.” Thus, one can be a citizen of Takoma Park but not of the United States. It may be counter-intuitive, post-modern even, but it makes democratic sense. (Voting by non-U.S. citizens in national elections, however, would be deeply problematic, since the interests of nations often conflict and diverge.)
The argument for expanding suffrage at the local level is particularly compelling now, because many non-citizens in the United States have fled violence in El Salvador and Guatemala, nations whose military-controlled governments have won substantial American aid for many years now. Surely if the federal government can promote democracy for Salvadorans living in El Salvador by sharing weapons with their rulers, local governments can promote democracy for Salvadorans living in American cities by sharing the right to vote.
It is important to recognize the danger in continuing to exclude large numbers of permanent residents from political membership in their communities. People frozen out of democracy’s circle learn to express their grievances and frustrations in other ways. Down the hill from Takoma Park, the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant is still recovering from the shock of last summer’s civil disturbances, in which dozens of people were injured and arrested. These troubles erupted against the backdrop of the city government’s neglect of Mt. Pleasant. The Latino population concentrated there has little pull to get public resources, because it lacks the hard currency of local politics: votes.
Democratic progress requires expanding the franchise to take in all of those governed by the political community. Two hundred years ago, voting in Maryland was restricted to white men 21 or older who owned 50 acres of land. At the next mayoral election in Takoma Park, all adult residents will be allowed to cast a vote. Even if you do not see this as a red-white-and-blue triumph for democracy, as I do, perhaps you will see the peril in keeping our non-citizen residents politically and socially invisible. On Tuesday, Takoma Park said: Share the vote with the voteless. Add to that thought: No more Mt. Pleasants.
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