Most people take for granted that to vote in U.S. elections one must be an American citizen. But then again, most people do not sit on the New York City Council. As has been widely reported, that body is closing in on a proposal to allow more than a million non-citizen, legal aliens vote in municipal elections. Debate on the measure could begin as early as this spring, and there is little reason to doubt the left-leaning council will pass it, or that Mayor de Blasio has any intention of vetoing it.
While allowing non-citizens to vote in local (mostly school-board) elections is not unprecedented, it has never been codified on anywhere near this scale. The implications of implementing such a policy in our nation’s largest city are far-reaching and frightening. Below are five reasons why allowing non-citizens to vote in the Big Apple is a terrible idea.
1. New York City Municipal Elections Have National Consequences
Proponents of the measure argue that because voting would be limited to municipal elections it would have no national consequences. This position is patently false. The last two former mayors of New York, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, have been seriously spoken of as potential presidential candidates, and both cast long shadows in American politics. Our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, is about to launch a nationwide speaking tour on income inequality, including a stop in Iowa.
Granting non-citizens a million votes would make local leaders a major voice in deciding who resides in Gracie Mansion and thus provide an outsized opportunity to influence national political discourse. The mayoralty alone, which also includes municipal dealings with the United Nations, housed in our city, would give non-citizens enormous power in national affairs. But it goes well beyond that.
New York City has 13 congressional districts. That’s more than either Massachusetts or Virginia. And while the city council proposal would not allow non-citizens to vote in congressional elections, it’s important to understand how New York City congressional elections work. With the exception of NY11, the notorious Staten Island-South Brooklyn ex-Michael Grimm district, New York City’s congressional seats are rarely decided by general elections. Democratic dominance in the other 12 districts create determinative primaries. In a primary that essentially wins the seat, local elected officials play a major role in determining candidates. A constituency of a million voters will have a massive impact on who runs and wins in those Democratic primaries, even if none of those million legal aliens cast a ballot for Congress.
2. The System Isn’t Broken
New York City has been a bastion of immigrants for almost its entire existence. The masses who passed through Ellis Island never expected the right to vote when they landed. Indeed, throughout its history many immigrant New Yorkers have worked, paid taxes, and lived under a government they have never voted for. But, at the same time, non-citizen residents of New York have always engaged in civic responsibilities.
Through civic organizations and community participation, immigrant communities have a great amount of say about what happens in their neighborhoods. Nobody has pointed out any examples of elected officials ignoring immigrant populations. This is true, by and large, because many members of each immigrant community do in fact become citizens. And they have kids who are citizens by birthright. There is no crisis here. This is a solution in search of a problem.
3. Paying Taxes Doesn’t Always Equal a Vote
Taxation without representation is a powerful theme in American history. And it is central to the argument in favor non-citizen voting. After all, non-citizens pay taxes in New York City. But paying taxes doesn’t always entitle one to a vote.
If anyone goes on vacation to California, or even accepts a short-term job there, we pay taxes without voting in local elections. If people own property in separate districts, they must choose where they vote, even though they pay taxes in both. Allowing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections while they still have to right to vote in their home countries (assuming those countries are democracies) gives them a right that reaches beyond the rights afforded to American citizens. Until those foreign nationals decide to become American citizens, there is no reason they should be voting in American elections.
4. We Have Naturalization Tests for a Reason
The proposal city council is considering would require new immigrants to live in New York City for all of six months before they can participate in local elections. Many immigrants to the city are coming from countries where they have never experienced real democracy. Even those coming from truly democratic nations have not experienced the United States’ unique brand of democracy. New citizens must pass a test on American history and civics for just this reason. While the franchise is a natural-born right for American citizens, those seeking to become citizens here must earn it.
Proponents of non-citizen voting may well argue that many natural-born Americans cannot pass these tests. And they may be right. But our failures in teaching civics to our kids should not result in us throwing up our hands and providing the franchise for every short-term resident of our country. We all agree that better education about how our country works is a priority, ushering in an age of non-citizen voting does not advance that priority.
5. Being an American Means Something
There is a long-standing joke that New York City is not really part of the United States. It’s a joke that we New Yorkers make ourselves. But it’s just that—a joke. People who argue that, as a global hub, New York should invest its foreign nationals with the vote fail to understand just how American our major city is. New York is no less American than Paris is French or London is English. Our remarkable diversity, and the unprecedented ease with which our diverse populations get along, represent the unique power of America among nations. Nowhere else on Earth can people cast off the shackles of their origin and expect to be treated as nothing more or less than a human being, who deserves respect and rights.
But becoming a citizen means something. Having one’s child be born a citizen means something. There are those for whom the notions of borders and citizenship seems like nothing more than nationalist jingoism. Many of those people seem to sit on the New York City Council. But if a person chooses, as millions do every year, to pursue a life in the United States, becoming a citizen matters. For millions, that ceremony has been and continues to be a source of great pride and connection to immigrants’ new home. Offering the vote to those unwilling to make that choice demeans centuries of sacrifice and hard work by those who struggled to become our countrymen.
In 2015, we have a president who has decided to single-handedly change our nation’s immigration policy. We have New York City mayor who is handing out official municipal identification cards to illegal immigrants. We have a Congress that seems incapable of implementing effective immigration laws or enforcing existing laws. But none of these are good reasons to simply give up on the idea that voting in America is the sole right of American citizens. Whether an election is local, state, or federal, it affects us all. That is why we just jealously guard participation.
This week, National Review suggested that this non-citizen voting proposal represents little more than a power grab by a liberal mayor with sagging poll numbers, that non-citizen voters will keep de Blasio in office. It is a rather silly analysis. First of all, it’s not clear that this policy would help de Blasio should he face a primary challenge, which at the moment is the only significant challenge he is likely to face. More importantly, we must understand that this proposal represents something far larger than cynical electoral math. It represents a desire by many on city council to dissociate themselves and their city from the United States.
That dissociation, that desire to stand in otherness to the nation as a whole, must be roundly rejected. New Yorkers, and Americans, are only just becoming aware of this plan. This is an issue where both sides should agree that voting must require a permanent attachment to our country.
Like many New Yorkers, one of the reasons I live here is that everything and everyone is here. Every day we interact with and learn about cultures we might otherwise have no experience with. But when it comes to stepping up to the ballot box and casting a vote, it must only be those of us who by birth or by choice have accepted this country, and forsaken all others, who have direct control of our future.