Earlier this year, Takoma Park, Md., A suburb of Washington with a liberal tilt, held a special election to fill a vacant city-council seat. It was the town's latest contest under a 1992 law that allows any adult resident--including noncitizens--to vote for local offices. And since the election occurred at an odd time of year, officials took extra steps to get the word out. They mailed a notice, in Spanish and English, to every home. They sent a second notice to every registered voter. Yet when Election Day came, turnout was light, especially among noncitizens: not one of them cast a ballot.
A single election may not be the fairest test. But as New York, Boston and several other cities consider allowing noncitizens to vote, the benefits of doing so are murky. Immigrant-rights advocates insist that giving newcomers a voice in local government integrates them quickly into their communities--and encourages them to become citizens. Opponents say that's backward: voting means little to an immigrant who hasn't earned citizenship. It's a divisive debate, and in a nation grown chilly toward immigrants, supporters of noncitizen voting have a tough case to make.
It wasn't always so. The U.S. Constitution leaves voting rules up to states and cities, and from 1776 to 1926, 40 states and territories allowed noncitizens to vote in local and even federal elections, according to Ron Hayduk, a co-founder of the Immigrant Voting Project. Anti-immigrant sentiment put an end to that, and the aftermath of World War I created a mistrust of foreigners that led all states to make voting the sole privilege of U.S. citizens.
The rules started changing again in the late 1960s, when New York City decentralized its school system and allowed all parents--including illegal immigrants--to vote in school-board elections. (The practice ended with the dissolution of school boards in 2003.) Any parent in Chicago can still vote for local school-council members. The city doesn't track noncitizen voting, but a district spokesman says turnout is low.
In the early 1990s, immigrant protests in Washington and New York City caused activists to argue that giving noncitizens the vote would help quell unrest. The idea fizzled everywhere but in Takoma Park and five smaller suburbs of Washington. For the 1993 election, noncitizens voted in Takoma Park at a 35% rate, better than the 30% for citizens. But the noncitizen figure plummeted over the following seven elections. City clerk Jessie Carpenter speculates that "early on, there was more interest because [voting] was new." She doesn't believe that resurgent concern over illegal immigrants has driven noncitizens from the polls.
In fact, Hayduk says, measures like the 2005 Sensenbrenner bill, which would have increased penalties for illegal immigration, prompted activists to offer the current voting proposals so that politicians would be more responsive to noncitizens' concerns. The proposals are narrower than past ones. New York City's bill, for example, would apply to some 1.3 million people who have been in the U.S. legally for at least six months on a green card or long-term visa.
Still, the measures provoke strong opposition. Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, argues that "we need more--not fewer--incentives for immigrants to assimilate and become full-fledged American citizens." Unfortunately, the immigrants of Takoma Park don't offer much of a rebuttal. If noncitizens truly want to vote, they can't blow off elections.