Ask the Experts

New York City is weighing a major expansion of voting rights. Here’s what you need to know.

Roughly 900,000 immigrants would be allowed to vote in municipal elections under a bill being considered in the City Council, but the mayor’s office doesn’t yet back it.

Democratic Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan is sponsoring the push for noncitizen voting now.

Democratic Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan is sponsoring the push for noncitizen voting now. William Alatriste

New York City has seen a spike in voter enrollment in recent years, but voter rolls stand to grow even more if the City Council passes a bill that would allow another roughly 900,000 residents to vote in municipal elections. The proposal, which grants immigrants with permanent residency or legal work authorization the ability to vote in municipal races, has been bouncing around the council for over a decade, but it’s Democratic Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan who is sponsoring the push for noncitizen voting now. “If they pay their taxes they should have a right to elect their local leaders, and if people have a problem with this then they should move to another town or another country that has not been built by immigrants,” Rodriguez tweeted on Monday.

With roughly 5.6 million registered voters in New York City as of this February, extending voting rights to noncitizens to another 900,000 people could be significant, though it’s unlikely that every single new eligible voter would actually register to vote. Rodriguez’s bill now has over 30 co-sponsors, but a hearing on the legislation on Monday laid bare why the proposal to allow noncitizens to vote is still stalling. Despite overwhelming support in the council, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is not yet backing it. “I don’t believe it is legal,” de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer last week, citing potential conflict with the state constitution. 

Here’s what else you need to know about the proposal that could grant New York City’s permanent residents the right to vote in municipal elections.

Who would become eligible to vote under the bill?

The legislation proposed by Rodriguez and supported by the majority of the City Council would allow noncitizens who are lawful permanent residents – green card holders – of New York City or who have work authorization here to vote, assuming they meet all other voter registration requirements. The bill would not extend voting rights to the city’s large population of undocumented immigrants. 

The extension of voting rights would only apply to municipal elections, meaning that if passed, permanent residents would be eligible to vote in primary, general, special and run-off elections for mayor, City Council, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and for any municipal ballot measures. 

While noncitizen voting has been advanced by lawmakers and backed by immigration advocacy groups for a long time, the proposal has taken on a new significance during the pandemic. Many of the city’s essential workers are immigrants, and proponents of the legislation argue that their contributions to the city should be recognized. “We expect immigrants to show up for this city, day in and day out, even in the midst of a pandemic,” said Fulvia Vargas-De León, associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a civil rights advocacy group. “And yet we say to them, ‘Live in this city, send your kids to school here, work here and even pay taxes here. But if you want to have a say in who runs the city, if you want to have a say in the legislation that is passed in the city, you don’t meet the necessary requirements.’”

Are noncitizens eligible to vote elsewhere?

New York City would be the first major city in the country to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, but it wouldn’t be the first of any locality to take such a step. Takoma Park, Maryland – a city of roughly 18,000 people – has permitted noncitizens to vote in city elections since 1992. Though the passage of noncitizen voting would be a much greater undertaking for New York City – over 460 times the size of Takoma Park – supporters of the measure say that Takoma Park shows that the noncitizen voting can work.

But the notion of noncitizens voting for their local representatives is hardly new in New York City. Between 1968 and 2003, noncitizens were allowed to vote in New York City school board elections – a fact proponents of the current legislation pointed to as precedent for its passage. 

What’s standing in the way of this popular bill?

Despite support from the majority of the City Council, the de Blasio administration and other skeptics have raised questions about state law preemption when it comes to noncitizen voting. Laura Wood, New York City’s chief democracy officer, said in testimony on Monday that the administration is not taking a position on the bill. “While we understand and appreciate the goals of the bill, we do have some concerns about it,” Wood said, citing Article II of the state constitution, which states that “every citizen” should be entitled to vote.

City Council Member Kalman Yeger, who is running for reelection on the Democratic, Republican and Conservative party lines, said that the decision to extend noncitizens the right to vote must be made at the state level. “They ought to pass this in the state Legislature (and) amend the constitution,” Yeger said. “If this is what the state Legislature wishes to do, they can do it. But we can’t.”

Proponents of the bill maintain that the City Council shouldn’t refrain from passing the bill just because there is a possibility of legal challenges on the horizon. And Rodriguez, the sponsor of the bill, argued that the language in the state constitution characterizes a floor, and not a ceiling, to voter rights. In other words, just because the state constitution details citizens’ right to vote does not mean that it prohibits noncitizens from voting.

There are also concerns about how noncitizen voting would be implemented if the bill passes, including whether citizenship status could be shielded from view on public voter rolls. Mike Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, said that the board is only able to shield three pieces of information from voter registration forms – the last four digits of the voter’s social security number, their driver or non-driver ID number, and their fax number.

Wood, the city’s chief democracy officer, cast doubt on the BOE’s ability to implement the bill. “Allocating responsibility for noncitizen voting to an institution that is unreliable and unaccountable raises serious concerns, espscially as it relates to privacy, discrimination and legal consequences,” she said, noting that noncitizens could also face legal consequences at the federal level if they accidentally registered to vote in other elections. 

What’s next for the bill?

With only a few months left in de Blasio’s term – and Rodriguez himself term-limited out of office – the proposal granting noncitizens the right to vote is facing a deadline. Still, it’s likely the proposal would be taken up again next year by another lawmaker. Should the bill get kicked down the road, it may find more support under a potential Eric Adams mayoral administration. Adams submitted testimony to Monday’s hearing in support of the bill, which Rodriguez read to the committee. “Expanding the right to vote to people who live here, work here, raise families here, and collectively pay billions of dollars in taxes here should not be controversial,” Adams wrote. “It should be the easiest vote you take in your career on the City Council.”

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