As of Jan. 1, 2012, an estimated 13.3 million lawful permanent residents lived in the United States, and 8.8 million of them were eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship but had not done so. In California, 2.48 million out of 3.4 million green-card holders were eligible to apply but chose not to. And, of course, not all non-citizens residing in this country are “lawful.” An estimated 11 million people live here without permission, though President Obama recently took action to defer the deportation of as many as half of them.
America obviously would benefit if more non-citizens living here — including, eventually, undocumented immigrants — took on the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. But what if they don’t? Non-citizens are still members of their communities. They pay taxes and in many cases send their children to public schools. Should they be given some greater say in the decisions of the local governments, school boards and judicial systems that make decisions for themselves and their children?
Many Americans consider it unthinkable that non-citizens — even lawful permanent residents — would be allowed to vote in elections. Gov. Jerry Brown agrees with them. Last year, in vetoing a bill that would have allowed non-citizen permanent residents to serve on juries, Brown said, “Jury service, like voting, is quintessentially a prerogative and responsibility of citizenship.”
Brown was accurately describing current practice. At present, it’s a crime, punishable by a year in prison, for a non-citizen to vote in a federal election. U.S. citizenship is also a near-universal requirement for voting in state and local elections.
But it wasn’t always thus. Far from considering voting “quintessentially” an attribute of citizenship, as many as 40 states and U.S. territories once allowed non-citizens to vote in state and sometimes in federal elections. Non-citizen white men in some places enjoyed the franchise even as it was denied to women and African Americans. Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at Queens College and advocate for non-citizen voting, has called it “as American as apple pie.”
Allowing non-citizens to vote was not motivated by 21st century notions of globalism or diversity. Rather, according to a study by Jamin B. Raskin, “the practice was seen as conducive to a desired immigration (and assimilation) of foreigners and consistent with basic principles of democratic government.” Some states extended the franchise only to non-citizens who declared an intention to seek citizenship.
So-called alien suffrage began to be restricted at the turn of the 20th century, partly in response to nativist fear that immigrants from eastern and southern Europe (many of them Roman Catholic) couldn’t be “real Americans.” In 1926 Arkansas became the last state to abandon alien suffrage.
But in recent years there have been efforts to extend the franchise to non-citizens, at least in local elections. Six towns in Maryland now allow non-citizens — including undocumented immigrants — to vote in municipal elections. The city of Takoma Park, Md., allowed non-citizens to vote after a 1990 city census found significant numbers of residents who weren’t citizens. Such proposals aren’t always successful: In 2010, San Francisco voters turned down a proposal to let non-citizen parents of children in public schools vote in school board elections.
There are some intriguing arguments for letting non-citizens vote, but ultimately they aren’t persuasive. With a few exceptions, citizenship should remain the prerequisite for voting in local, state and national elections. Precisely because this is such an ethnically and religiously diverse nation — and, yes, a nation of immigrants — shared citizenship is an important unifying force.
The most resonant argument for non-citizen voting may be “taxation without representation”: Non-citizens pay taxes that support local government, so why shouldn’t they have a say over how it is run? But non-citizens also pay federal taxes, and there is little support for allowing them to vote in federal elections. Moreover, linking the payment of taxes to voting smacks of a property qualification. Even citizens who don’t pay taxes have a right to vote.
It’s also argued that one can be a “citizen” of a city or town without being a citizen of the U.S. But this sort of piecemeal citizenship doesn’t make sense in an era in which the lines between federal, state and local action are often blurred. And common U.S. citizenship is an important source of social cohesion even at the local level.
We aren’t opposed to giving non-citizens a say over institutions, such as public schools, in which they and their families have a personal stake. But that needn’t take the form of participation in school-board elections (which, after all, are not limited to parents). Under California’s Parent Trigger law, for instance, a majority of parents in an underperforming public school can sign a petition to force it to become, say, a charter school; the law doesn’t distinguish between parents who are citizens and those who aren’t.
Finally, some advocates suggest that letting lawful permanent residents vote would induce them to take the next step and apply for citizenship. As Raskin puts it: “People get involved a lot by people getting involved a little.” But we’re concerned that the opposite might be the case. If non-citizens can vote in local elections without becoming citizens, doesn’t that give them one fewer reason to seek naturalization?
We agree with Brown that voting is and should be inextricably tied to U.S. citizenship. But we also believe that more needs to be done to encourage people who have decided to live in this country to participate fully in its political life at every level of government. It is not healthy if large numbers of permanent residents, workers and taxpayers are excluded from voting. But the answer is not to sever voting — or jury service, for that matter — from citizenship. It is rather to expand the circle of citizenship.
This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at latimes.com/citizenship and #21stCenturyCitizen. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, rebuttals and experiences with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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