FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHT:
In Queens And Throughout New York Immigrants Seek To Get Voting Rights
Many non-citizen immigrants seek the same voting rights as citizens.
By Andrew Moesel
When she first moved from England in 1993, Catherine James felt like she was in limbo, one foot in her old country, the other in the often-hectic landscape of New York City.
Over time, however, she noticed small signs of belonging. She bumped into people she knew on the street. The local deli had and her usual order waiting for her as soon as she walked in. Slowly, the other side of the Atlantic seemed farther and farther away, and the towering skyscrapers and endless sidewalks became home.
But something still makes James feel detached from her adopted city: the fact that, as a non-citizen, she cannot vote and therefore has no say in how it’s governed. To her, it’s like dealing with a difficult loved one.
“I am connected to New York. We are partners. But it’s a strange connection because one side has asked for something and the other has said ‘no,’” James said. “I guess what I’m saying is that I want this relationship to go further.”
More than 1 million New Yorkers experience similar frustrations. In Queens, the starting point for many immigrants, 28 percent of voting age residents cannot vote because of their citizenship status. In some neighborhoods, it’s more than 40 percent.
A recently introduced bill in the City Council could change that, extending the privilege of voting in municipal elections to anyone who has lawfully lived in the city for just 6 months. The legislation has touched off a debate about everything from the power of city government to the very nature of citizenship itself.
While even its supporters describe the movement to expand the electorate as in its infant stages, several Council members are enthusiastic about the idea, and the increasingly diverse population of the city can only grow more vocal. In time, the way New Yorkers view the electorate could be very different.
Bryan Pu-Folkes of NICE speaks at an alien suffrage rally. Tribune photos by Ira Cohen
The New Suffrage
Like black and female voters before them, many new immigrants believe the fundamental principles of democracy are being undermined by their exclusion from the polls. Since they pay taxes, send their children to city schools, purchase homes and ride the subway, non-citizens claim they have a vital stake in the city’s governance.
A vote, they say, would allow them to express their opinion about the topics that affect their daily lives by engaging in the democratic process.
“We pay a great deal of taxes and work very hard,” said Yolanda Anderson, of Jackson Heights. “We are also very involved in our community and have many friends that are in the same situation. I feel we should have the right to vote.”
Although today many people associate the right to vote as tied to citizenship, perhaps even its core tenet, non-citizen advocates argue that the connection is neither universally accepted nor historically accurate.
Most restrictions on local elections were put in place relatively recently to limit the influence of the non-Anglo population as immigrants flooded in during the early 1900s, according to Ron Hayduk, a CUNY professor who has written a book on the topic.
In the late 1800s, non-citizens were allowed to vote in as many as 40 federal states and territories. Tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests increasingly were implemented to keep certain groups of people out of power, he said.
Today, six cities in Maryland have permitted non-citizens to vote in municipal elections since the mid-1990s, and two cities in Massachusetts have passed similar laws that are pending state approval. Movements for “alien suffrage,” as it has been called, have also gained traction in cities like San Francisco and Denver.
Non-resident voting is nothing new to New York City. Parents could vote in local school board elections, regardless of citizenship, until Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2003 officially shut down the board system. The Charter Revision Commission sent Albany a suggestion that would extend voting rights to non-citizens only two years ago, but the Republicans in the Legislature stonewalled the idea.
Critics of alien suffrage measures say all immigrants have a mechanism to obtain a vote: completing the naturalization process.
“It is entirely reasonable to ask that in exchange for the right to vote, a person make the affirmative commitment to this nation that citizenship entails,” said Chris DeCicco, a spokesman for Republican Councilman James Oddo (R-Staten Island), who opposes such legislation. “Allowing immigrants to vote without their first becoming citizens would provide a great disincentive for them to apply for citizenship and assimilate into American society.”
Impact On Queens
With the highest percentage of foreign-born residents, Queens has more potential voters than any other borough. According to the 2000 census, there are 550,420 residents who meet all the requirements of voting except for citizenship.
In the 21st and 25th City Council districts, which encompass most of Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst, areas with high Latin American and South Asian populations, almost half of the adults cannot vote.
Bryan Pu-Folks, president of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, based in Jackson Heights, said voting would ease the palpable fear many foreigners feel toward government, and ultimately help transition them into American life.
“I don’t believe we can have a functioning democracy if people can’t say would they think their representatives should be,” Pu-Folkes said.
Of the nine sponsors of the bill, none are from the Queens delegation.
The city legislation, Introduction No. 628, would allow residents who have lived in the city for 6 months before the date of the next election, and who meet all other requirements for registering under state law, to vote for mayor, comptroller, city council members, local ballot questions, and other municipal elections.
After the city legal department reviewed the legislation, however, administration lawyers formed the opinion that the law would be inconsistent with the state constitution and, at the very least, would require a referendum to be passed.
Based on that recommendation, the City Office of Legislative Affairs wrote a letter to councilman Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan), who recently chaired committee hearings on the bill, asking him not to pursue the legislation.
“Indeed, the Administration believes that the better avenue for expanding the franchise in this circumstance is by making available the appropriate mechanisms and incentives for non-citizens to obtain citizenship,” said Karen Meara, director of legislative affairs.
Aziz Huq, associate counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, said neither the U.S. nor New York State constitutions specifically bar non-citizens from accessing the local voting franchise. While New York Election Law does exclude non-citizens from voting, the statute contains a clause that allows individual municipalities to “opt out” of the overriding provision and establish their own electoral qualifications, Huq said.
“The U.S. Constitution is a shield, there is nothing that would make it a sword against non-citizens,” Huq said.
A referendum might be needed, Huq said, but that is a procedural point concerning the implementation of the bill, not a strike against its legality.
“People just don’t want to shift the power, or any changes in the dynamics of power,” said Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn). “White men have too much power…and they don’t want to share it.”