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The National Desk: Fight over noncitizen voting heats up as GOP challenges NYC law

By STEPHEN LOIACONI | Tuesday, January 11th 2022 | Original Article

New York City has become the largest locality in the country to allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections as Mayor Eric Adams allowed a law passed by the city council last month to take effect Saturday, but major legal and political battles over the policy lie ahead.

Adams chose not to veto the legislation despite some misgivings, letting it go into effect 30 days after passage by default. Less than 48 hours later, several New York Republican lawmakers backed by the Republican National Committee filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to invalidate the law, which would enable over 800,000 noncitizens to vote in local elections starting next January.

 

“If Democrats can subvert elections this flagrantly in America’s largest city, they can do it anywhere,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel. “The RNC is suing to protect the integrity of our elections, and we stand ready to do the same wherever Democrats try to attack the basic security of your ballot.”

Voting experts say the measure poses no credible threat to election security, but the legal issues involved are complicated. Some Democrats have also questioned whether advocating for noncitizen voting is politically prudent at a time when Republicans are effectively mobilizing their base with election integrity fears.

New York City joins at least 14 other municipalities that allow noncitizens to participate in some elections, according to Ballotpedia. Noncitizens are currently barred from voting in any federal elections, but most state constitutions do not overtly prohibit them from voting in local races.

“Federal law forbids noncitizens from voting in federal elections but says nothing about state or local elections,” said Joshua Douglas, an election law expert at the University of Kentucky and author of “Vote for US: How to Take Back our Elections and Change the Future of Voting.” “So, it’s up to each jurisdiction.”

The New York measure applies to legal residents and so-called Dreamers, migrants who were brought to the country illegally as children and are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. If the bill survives legal challenges, they will be eligible to register to vote in December and they will receive ballots that only include New York City offices in upcoming elections.

Adams told CNN Sunday he had specific problems with a provision in the bill that required noncitizens to be residents for 30 days before they could vote, but he spoke to colleagues who supported the law and they convinced him to let it move forward. He dismissed complaints that granting voting rights to noncitizens could undermine the value of citizenship.

“I think it’s imperative that people who are in a local municipality have the right to decide who’s going to govern them,” Adams said. “And I support the overall concept of that bill.”

The Republican lawsuit notes the language of New York’s constitution states “every citizen” is entitled to vote in elections, and only “persons entitled to vote” can elect government officers. New York election laws cited in the filing also state one must be a citizen of the United States to register to vote in any federal, state, or local election.

In addition, under the state’s municipal home rule law, Republicans maintain any changes to methods of electing or removing government officers require a public referendum. More broadly, they argue expanding voting rights to noncitizens dilutes the votes of citizens and creates “an abrupt and sizable change to the makeup of the electorate” that will directly impact campaigns.

Adams’ predecessor former Mayor Bill de Blasio had expressed “mixed feelings” about the bill when he opted not to veto or sign it. He stated there were “big legal questions” about the city council’s authority to enact the law, and he predicted it might discourage people from completing the citizenship process.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg also opposed the legislation, warning that it would be difficult for a “notoriously incompetent” board of elections to implement properly and that it would devalue citizenship. He also feared a major city pursuing the policy would make the national debate on immigration reform and voting rights more toxic.

Immigrant advocates dismissed the new GOP legal challenge as a partisan stunt, accusing them of pursuing a racist, anti-immigrant agenda. They tied the attack on noncitizen voting to broader Republican efforts to restrict voting rights in the wake of the 2020 election.

“We won’t allow members of a political party that has yet to accept the results of the 2020 presidential elections or acknowledge their role in a violent insurrection against our democracy to subvert the will of New Yorkers through a baseless lawsuit,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigrant Coalition.

While controversial, this is not a new idea. White male noncitizens were allowed to vote in some elections in 22 states and territories at various times in the nation’s past, but those rights were scaled back amid rising xenophobic sentiment after World War I. Experts say the case for allowing noncitizens to vote rests on the fact that they participate in local communities as much as citizens do.

“The best argument is that these individuals are living in our communities, lawfully sending their kids to school, and are impacted by local policies,” Douglas said. “Therefore, they should have a say in electing those who determine those policies.”

Douglas stressed there is no federal impediment to states or cities granting noncitizens the right to vote in local elections, but state election rules vary widely and some do expressly prohibit it. Campaigns to expand voting access to all legal residents have gained momentum in recent years in some cities, but New York City represents advocates’ biggest victory by far.

Most localities that currently allow noncitizens to vote are small towns in Maryland, where the state constitution allows municipalities to change voting qualifications without state approval. In Vermont, the state legislature overruled vetoes by Gov. Phil Scott last year to approve noncitizen voting in two cities. Voters in San Francisco backed a city charter amendment in 2016 allowing noncitizens with children to participate in Board of Education elections.

It is unclear how much appetite legislators and voters elsewhere have for following a similar path, but the New York City bill has dramatically raised the profile of a long-simmering debate. The question of whether noncitizens should have a voice in elections spurs passionate responses on both sides.

It is bad for New York, it is bad for America,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Monday. “And not only do I think it’s inconsistent with our history and the law, I think that it denigrates those of us who are citizens.

Defenders insist the New York City law is legally sound, bolsters civic engagement, and ensures that the local government better represents the community it serves. Becoming a citizen can be a time-consuming and costly process, and they see no reason it should be a barrier to participating in elections for those who are in the country legally.

“We build a stronger democracy when we include the voices of immigrants,” said New York City Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, who championed the law when he served on the city council.

Two city council members in San Jose, California proposed a measure Friday to allow more than 200,000 noncitizens to vote in local elections. The provision would require voter approval, but they urged the city council to hold a special session to study it.

We need to make sure that the voice of our noncitizen community is not suppressed or erased…,” said sponsor Magdalena Carrasco. “They deserve the right to vote for those in power.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Georgia introduced a state constitutional amendment Monday to affirm only U.S. citizens are allowed to vote. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger publicly called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to do the same.

“I am calling on Congress to take steps to strengthen our elections systems and restore the confidence that decades of stolen election claims have stolen from our elections infrastructure,” Raffensperger, who is running for reelection this year, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Mona Charen of conservative publication The Bulwark cautioned the issue represents “bad policy and terrible politics” for Democrats. She cited a 2018 HarrisX poll that found 71% of Americans, including 70% of independents and 54% of Democrats, opposed San Francisco’s move to allow noncitizens to vote in school board elections.

“It’s a lead-pipe cinch that this will become a major campaign talking point for Republicans,” Charen wrote. “They will depict this as proof that Democrats only favor immigration because they want to pad the number of Democratic voters.”

Indeed, Republicans are already launching such attacks. Days after the New York City law passed, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced legislation that would withhold federal funds from states and localities that permit noncitizens to vote.

It’s simple — U.S. citizens should be the only people voting in U.S. elections,” co-sponsor Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in a statement. “Sadly, far-Left states and cities have moved to disenfranchise Americans by allowing noncitizens to participate in our elections. This must be stopped.

Although a potentially veto-proof majority of New York’s City Council backed the bill, some Democrats agree with its critics that it could damage the party’s interests in the long run. Democratic strategist Bradley Honan believes the initiative could easily backfire.

“The GOP will use this issue — regardless of whether it spreads beyond the borders of New York City or not — to drive turnout with their base. It’s smart politics by the GOP, and an unforced error by Democrats,” Honan said Tuesday.

Republicans often frame progressive efforts to extend voting rights to immigrants as a ploy to create hundreds of thousands of new voters from historically Democratic-leaning constituencies. However, Honan noted research showing recent immigrants are disproportionately low-income minorities who are unlikely to vote in local elections, and the 2020 election offers little evidence that demographic would strongly support Democrats if they do.

“This issue is a loser for Democrats,” he said. “It’s unnecessarily fracturing the tentative ‘Brown-Black coalition,’ as many African American elected officials are against this idea, it realistically won’t add many more voters, and it will be successfully weaponized by the GOP against Democrats across the country.”

In communities that have opened up voting to noncitizens in recent years, their participation does not appear to have significantly impacted outcomes or presented major administrative hurdles. It might prove more complicated and consequential in New York City, where the estimated 800,000 new voters could make up 15% of the electorate in 2023 if they vote.

“I don’t think there’s been a huge turnout among noncitizens, but there also have not been any problems,” Douglas said. “Of course, with the size of the noncitizen population of NYC, the turnout question might be quite different.”

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