Salem resident; history professor and coordinator of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies, Salem State University
One of this country’s most historic slogans is “no taxation without representation.” Yet today we still have laws that do just that: tax people while not permitting their participation or representation in governance. A good way to start addressing that unfairness is to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.
Until the 1920s, non-citizen voting was common throughout the United States. This does not mean that everyone could vote — both citizenship and voting rights were restricted to white men during most of this period. From the perspective of inclusiveness, non-citizen voting was based on the principle that if people live in a community, they should have the right to participate in the governance of that community. From the perspective of exclusiveness, non-citizen voting was a way of increasing white power — since during most of this period immigrants were, almost by definition, white people.
We might like to think that laws that prevent people from voting because of their race are a thing of the past. True, today’s voting restrictions are a bit more complicated, but they still have the effect of taking the vote away from large numbers of people, and especially from people of color.
About 6.1 million voting-age citizens cannot vote because of prior felony convictions. Laws prohibiting felons from voting were passed as part of a wave of legislation aimed at disenfranchising black people after they were granted citizenship following the Civil War. Even today, the majority of those disenfranchised by these laws are people of color. About 4 million citizens can’t vote because they live in US “territories” (Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Mariana Islands). They too are overwhelmingly people of color. And about 23 million non-citizens – also mostly people of color – can’t vote because of their non-citizen status.
Today, we should embrace the inclusiveness of voting rights for non-citizens, while rejecting the rules that have privileged the voting rights of white men. Non-citizens work, pay taxes, serve in the military, purchase or rent dwellings, and send their children to school. Some non-citizens are seeking citizenship, or hope to seek it in the future. Some are not, and some are not legally allowed to obtain citizenship. Nevertheless, if they live in a community, they have a right to participate in the decision-making process of the place that they live.
North Andover resident; former member of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Registrars of Voters
Legal residents who are not citizens shouldn’t be eligible to vote in American elections.
Those who would change eligibility requirements at the local level note few voters turn out for town elections anyway. In my town of North Andover, only 17 percent of those eligible voted in this year’s town election. Good neighbors, legally living among us, could bring energy and interest to important business that Americans too often neglect.
But low interest isn’t necessarily a problem that needs solving. Low turnout means folks are satisfied with municipal management. If voter volume is the issue, I can think of easier ways to increase participation.
Jack up the tax rate. Crowd the classrooms. Let potholes go unfilled. Turnout will skyrocket.
Driving out voters in these ways, however, would be as misguided as extending voting rights to non-citizens.
Town elections are important. Elections determine town leaders and policies that impact education, firefighting, and policing. Local governments decide parking regulations at the swimming hole, school start times, if and how our trash gets collected, and even when our children can trick or treat.
Advocates for liberalizing voting rules say these decisions are mundanely intertwined with everyday living, and civic-minded, law-abiding, foreign nationals deserve a say.
By that argument, other inequities must be rectified. People who work in a town, traveling its roads and walking its sidewalks, don’t get a vote. And although local government sets tax rates and levies taxes, votes don’t go to all tax-paying property owners. Business owners have no voice in local government. Neither do folks who own vacation homes or income property.
Just residents. And citizens.
The integrity of elections depends on creating and following fair rules on who votes. In America, voters must be citizens. It’s a reasonable rule.
Elections are about planning our future. When citizens vote on potholes and ponds, taxes and teachers, we commit one another to a common vision of our future.
Requiring that every voter has first made a commitment to an American future is appropriate.
I admire the courage of my grandparents, who risked everything for a better, American life. I admire the courage and commitment shown by today’s immigrants who decide to formally join the ranks. It’s a commitment we, as a nation, reward by bestowing the most privileged responsibility we possess.
Last week’s Argument: Should Melrose become a sanctuary city?
Yes: 14.3 percent (9 votes)
No: 85.7 percent (54 votes)
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.