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New York City Council approves measure to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections

Activists participate in a rally on Thursday on the steps of City Hall ahead of a City Council vote to allow lawful permanent residents to cast votes in elections to pick the mayor, City Council members, and other municipal officeholders in New York City.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

NEW YORK — The City Council here on Thursday approved a measure that will allow immigrants who are not US citizens to vote for mayor and other key municipal positions, a historic move that is igniting threats of legal challenges from Republicans and hopes from Democrats that other cities will follow suit.

The council voted 33 to 14 with two abstentions. The measure immediately grants noncitizens significant leverage over a broad array of elective offices, including the mayor, City Council, comptroller, the public advocate, and the leaders of the city’s five boroughs who oversee issues such as zoning.

Approximately 1 million adult noncitizens live in New York City, which amounts to 20 percent of current registered voters, though it remains unclear how many would be eligible to vote, according to census figures, academic estimates, and the bill’s sponsor. To register, noncitizens must have lived here for 30 days, the same as the requirement for citizens, and have at least a work permit.

Noncitizens remain ineligible to vote for state and federal elections. Those in the United States illegally cannot vote. Anyone who violates the measure could face up to $500 in fines and a year in jail.

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“The New York City Council is making history,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s sponsor who is an immigrant and naturalized citizen from the Dominican Republic. “New York City must be seen as a shining example for other progressive cities to follow.”

The City Council vote is the culmination of years of advocacy that sought to restore voting rights that existed for other immigrants in the past, but the effort has largely stagnated nationwide.

Fourteen smaller jurisdictions in the United States allow noncitizens to vote, mostly in Maryland, including Hyattsville and Takoma Park, but also in Vermont and for the school board in San Francisco. Cities such as Los Angeles, Washington, and Portland, Maine, have floated the idea, said Ron Hayduk, political science professor at San Francisco State University and the author of “Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting in the US.”

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Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, Colorado, and Alabama ban noncitizen voting in their states, part of a parallel push by Republicans to prohibit such voting nationwide.

Republicans call the idea “radical” and vowed to fight it in court in New York and “all 50 states,” said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in a recent statement. The RNC filed a lawsuit to block a new measure that allows noncitizens to vote in a pair of Vermont cities.

Joseph Borelli, one of a handful of Republicans on the New York City Council, said only US citizens should vote for officials deciding sensitive matters such as taxes, the debt liability, and zoning.

“I don’t think those things should be decided by foreign citizens,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is not about a stop sign on their corner.”

New York had allowed noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections as recently as 2002, when officials abolished the boards — but some Democrats were hesitant about this year’s broader voting measure. Council member Ruben Diaz Sr. called the bill “dangerous and misguided” and tweeted that the “home to both the United Nations and Wall Street could easily be taken over by any group of noncitizens who live here for 30 days and vote for the leader of their choice.” His son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., supports the plan, a spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio also worried about the measure’s legality in a Nov. 29 interview with NY1 and predicted it would end up in court.

“I really want to make sure that there’s maximum incentive to finish the citizenship process,” de Blasio said. “I think there’s some open questions here that still cause me to feel concerned about this.”

Advocates say noncitizens should weigh in on city elections because they pay taxes, send their children to public schools, and work here, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when so many fled the city.

Immigrants account for nearly 37 percent of the 8 million residents in New York City, census figures show, and city officials say almost 60 percent are naturalized citizens. The rest are green-card holders, temporary workers, or students and undocumented immigrants.

Republicans say the state constitution says only citizens can vote, but historians say New York’s move is probably legal because noncitizens have voted, off and on, in the city and the country for more than 200 years, starting in the 1700s and picking up steam after the Civil War, when the majority of the city’s adult residents were from European nations such as Ireland, Germany, and Italy.

“They believed that if you gave people the right to vote, they would be invested in American society, feel part of the process,” said Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who wrote “Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States.”

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Forty states allowed noncitizen voting from 1776 to 1926, Hayduk said. But noncitizen voting and immigration declined with new restrictions on immigration that effectively barred Chinese immigrants and restricted immigration for decades.