Progressive policies seem to be having a moment in New York. In the span of two weeks, local elected officials opened the nation’s first two safe injection sites in Manhattan and granted noncitizens with legal status the right to vote in municipal elections.
The latter policy, enacted last Thursday with overwhelming support from the City Council, is particularly historic. It makes New York the largest city in the nation to make legal residents — approximately more than 800,000 people — eligible to vote for mayor, city council, comptroller, and other local elective offices as early as 2023. In a city where almost 40 percent of its 8 million residents are immigrants (including immigrants who wouldn’t be eligible under the new law, such as those without legal status), it is a massive exercise in enfranchisement — and a step in the right direction.
Fundamentally, New York’s law expanding voting rights shows other major cities what is possible when there is genuine progressive political will. Boston, where there are roughly 98,000 legal noncitizens, should be next.
It’s not like the issue of allowing legal immigrants to vote locally hasn’t come up in Boston. Former city councilor at large Felix D. Arroyo, who became the first Latino councilor in 2003, proposed a similar measure in 2007, but it failed. In 2018, City Councilor Andrea Campbell (then council president) introduced a hearing order just to discuss the policy, which then-councilor and now mayor Michelle Wu signed. During this year’s mayoral campaign, Wu was on the record saying she supports giving legal immigrants in Boston the right to vote locally.
“They are already paying taxes, they are already authorized to be here, and they are participants in the life of the city” socially and economically, Arroyo told the Globe in 2007. “So why not political?” That argument remains as true as ever. “We were not pioneers at that time; other cities were doing it,” Arroyo’s son, Ricardo, who currently represents District 5 on the City Council, told me. “Legal residents of Boston send their kids to our public schools; they should have the right to make determinations.”
Under the incoming Boston City Council — which will have its first Muslim member and the first Haitian American member — a measure like New York’s would probably pass, Ricardo Arroyo said. “I would be shocked if this doesn’t hit the floor,” he said. “And it would probably pass.”
Here’s hoping. If Wu signs a proposal, then it would be up to the Legislature and the governor to approve it, since the change would require a home rule petition. Other Massachusetts cities, such as Somerville, Brookline, and Cambridge, have considered similar proposals, to no avail.
Most opponents of granting even limited voting rights to legal immigrants see it as fundamentally wrong and unconstitutional, a right that only US citizens should have. They deem it a slippery slope that would invite electoral fraud. The argument that remains unspoken is fear of enfranchising “the other” — that is, giving immigrants more power than they currently have.
Yes, federal law prohibits noncitizens from voting in federal and statewide elections; however, jurisdictions are allowed to change their local electoral rules. Plus, most noncitizens could vote in the United States up until the mid-1920s, so the idea isn’t unprecedented.
Consideration on Beacon Hill would probably lead to broader debate and ammunition for GOP scare tactics. But the underlying question would persist: Do we enfranchise newcomers or do we fear them? New York’s answer: As legal taxpayers, noncitizens should have a say.