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OPINION

Voting is for citizens

Who is entitled to cast a ballot? New York’s city councilors come up with the wrong answer.

A voter submits their ballot on the first day of early voting in the New York City primary election on June 12, 2021.DESIREE RIOS/NYT

New York’s City Council seems determined to leave no progressive stone unturned. Last month, council members voted unanimously to banish a statue of Thomas Jefferson that had graced their City Hall chamber for more than 100 years. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president was unworthy of being honored, they decided, because he had enslaved Black people.

This month, city councilors voted overwhelmingly for another left-wing conceit: They passed a bill granting more than 800,000 noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections. As long as they have lived in the city for at least 30 days, green-card holders and foreign migrants with work permits will be eligible to cast ballots in future municipal elections. There are currently some 5.5 million voters in New York City, so noncitizens could swell the registration rolls by as much as 15 percent. To advocates of the new measure, this represents a wonderful expansion of the franchise.

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Critics, including many who strongly support increased immigration, beg to differ.

The first and most obvious problem with the legislation is that it flies in the face of New York laws. Article II, Section 1 of the state constitution spells out the qualifications to vote in the Empire State: “Every citizen shall be entitled to vote at every election,” it says, “provided that such citizen is eighteen years of age.” The same crucial word — citizen — also appears in Section 5, which directs that laws be passed to register “the citizens who shall be entitled to the right of suffrage,” and in Section 7, which specifies that “all elections by the citizens . . . shall be by ballot.”

The New York statute books are even more clear-cut. “No person shall be qualified to register for and vote at any election unless he is a citizen of the United States,” the state’s main election law begins. Regardless of the City Council’s motives in giving noncitizens the vote, it had no constitutional authority to do so, and the measure is likely to be overturned in court.

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Yet even if the new law didn’t suffer from a fatal legal flaw, it would still be a mistake.

The chief argument in support of permitting people to vote despite not being naturalized citizens is that the need for representation doesn’t depend on citizenship. Democracy is strengthened, advocates say, when everyone who is affected by public policies has an electoral voice in electing the officials who make those policies. If you don’t have to be a citizen to pay taxes, or to be dependent on the quality of public services like policing and schools, then why should you have to be a citizen to have a say in local politics? Give noncitizens the right to vote, this thinking goes, and you encourage more residents to engage with the civic life of their community.

But precisely the same arguments can be made about more than green-card holders. Why shouldn’t minors have the right to vote in New York City? Why shouldn’t businesses and nonprofits get a say in who gets elected? What about immigrants who entered the country unlawfully or overstayed their visas? Or residents of other states with a second home in the city? Or international students? Or suburbanites who commute into the city for work? They too are subject to public policies. They too are affected by the quality of municipal services. They too pay taxes. Shouldn’t they too be allowed to cast a ballot on Election Day?

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No.

The consent of the governed is an important principle in American democracy. But the right to vote has never been a function of having to live under a government’s policies. It is a function of citizenship. There are relatively few privileges that are reserved for citizens only, but one of them, the most important of them, is the right to vote.

For more immigrants to be engaged in the civic life of the community is indeed a worthy goal. There is no better way for that to happen than for foreigners who have transplanted themselves to America to obtain citizenship and begin voting. Allowing noncitizens to vote flips the natural order on its head — it strips away one of the most important incentives immigrants have for becoming a US citizen rather than remaining a green-card holder.

New York’s city councilors are sending a message that citizenship isn’t important. Their own state’s constitution says they’re wrong. The sooner the new ordinance is struck down, the better.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.