No taxation without representation?
Residents in Boston, New York, and other cities are reviving America's famous battle cry for political revolution. In the midst of a stormy national debate on immigration, they're challenging the idea of excluding noncitizens on a front that's less noticed but equally contentious.
They want immigrants to vote.
While that idea may seem outrageous to many, it's less radical than it sounds to its supporters. They want to limit such voting to local races and referendums and, in most areas, to legal immigrants.
Supporters argue that noncitizens are long-term residents who care about the same local issues that citizens do: good schools, safe streets, reliable trash collection. Many pay taxes. Some are US military veterans.
"They're living there, they have their kids in school, they're working, they're contributing to the local economy," says Kathleen Coll, a cultural anthropologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "They're full, complete local citizens [who are] affected by local policies."
Six Maryland communities already allow the practice, Chicago lets legal immigrants vote for school board members.
State lawmakers nix local efforts
Similar efforts have been tried elsewhere, but they failed or stalled because state legislatures didn't approve. Now, the movement is gaining traction again, mainly in liberal-leaning communities. For example:
• Five of 13 Boston city councilors said in April they would support a measure to enfranchise legal immigrants who intend to become citizens. It could increase Boston's pool of 280,000 voters by almost one-third.
• In March, Newton, Mass., joined three Boston-area towns that in recent years have sent similar "home rule petitions" to the state legislature, which must approve them before they can take effect. Newton's proposal would apply to legal immigrants who sign an affidavit saying they plan to naturalize.
• In New York, about 15 of 51 city councilors now favor a 2006 bill to enfranchise immigrants who have been lawfully present for at least six months. Almost 70 organizations have joined the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights. Noncitizens make up 15 to 35 percent of the population in the city's districts.
• In 2006, the aldermen of Carrboro, N.C., unanimously passed a measure limited to legal immigrants en route to naturalization; it wasn't approved in the state legislature.
"We thought that extending voting rights in Carrboro demonstrated their participation in the town," explains Alderman Dan Coleman, who supported the move. "We [also] want to encourage their engagement in our community through the practice of voting. We see the vote as a kind of gateway."
Similar efforts in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have stalled.
Critics find the idea ludicrous.
"Most Americans regard that as an outrageous notion, that somebody who is not a citizen of the country would be allowed to vote," says Steve Kropper, co-chair of Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, an organization that seeks to reduce immigration.
Some advocates want to limit voting rights to legal immigrants who intend to become citizens but haven't completed the process. Because naturalization takes on average eight years, the Migration Policy Institute reports, parents could see their 10-year-old graduate from high school before having a say in the public school system.
Education is often parents' top concern, so some initiatives have limited immigrants' votes to school-related issues. Since 1988, Chicago has allowed immigrant parents of schoolchildren to vote in school-board elections, regardless of legal status. New York City school boards, which existed from 1969 to 2003, did the same.
History supports noncitizen voting, says Ron Hayduk, codirector of the Immigrant Voting Project and author of "Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States." Letting immigrants vote was a routine practice in 40 US states and territories for 150 years, he says, until the antiimmigrant backlash around the 1920s.
The prevailing but incorrect notion is that voting is inherently linked to citizenship, Mr. Hayduk says, but actually it has been linked to race, gender, and land ownership. Blacks and women had to fight for the vote, he notes.
Given that context, Hayduk sees noncitizen voting as a natural progression of democratic evolution, or "the suffrage movement of our day."
Critics' objection: Citizens' votes diluted
But enfranchising noncitizens would unfairly dilute the strength of citizens' votes, says one critic, Steve Cameron, director of research at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.
He sees the rollback of voting rights a century ago as a period of electoral reform, not xenophobic or nativist backlash. In those decades, the secret ballot was introduced and political parties' influence restrained. "The elimination of noncitizen voting was done in that context, [as] part of an effort to clean up elections," he says.
For opponents, reviving the practice is just another step in accommodating unnecessary – and sometimes unlawful – immigrants. "The whole issue comes up [as] a direct consequence of large-scale immigration," Mr. Cameron continues. "If you had less immigration, legal or illegal, it would go away."
In the current immigration climate, many politicians, especially those above the local level, prefer to avoid the issue.
"If you're running for the school board in a really liberal area, yeah, you can say it. If you've got larger political ambitions, … you don't really want to be that candidate," says Cameron.