Ask the Experts

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

The City Council will vote next month on a bill that would allow more than 800,000 immigrants to vote in municipal elections.

The New York City Council is poised to pass a bill extending local voting rights to permanent residents and people with legal work authorization.

The New York City Council is poised to pass a bill extending local voting rights to permanent residents and people with legal work authorization. Ralph Ortega

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 800,000 to 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 The New York Times reported Tuesday that the bill is set to come to a vote on Dec. 9, and it is expected to pass.

“It’s long past the time we allowed our immigrant brothers and sisters to participate in our local elections,” Democratic Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan, who sponsored the bill, tweeted on Tuesday ahead of a rally for the bill at City Hall. “In a moment where voting rights are being scaled back across the country, New York is paving the way for immigrant enfranchisement,” Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, added at the rally.

Despite overwhelming support in the council, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has not backed the proposal, citing potential legal conflicts with the state constitution and concerns that it could discourage noncitizens from pursuing full citizenship. “I do have reservations, but obviously, I want to see exactly what they’re doing,” de Blasio said about the bill at a press conference on Tuesday. “I want citizenship to be something people pursue fully, quickly, every chance they get. ... I’m also concerned about the legal question, which is unclear, whether it’s something that can be done on the local level.”

Still, de Blasio added it’s not a bill that he would intend to veto. In any case, the bill currently has 34 co-sponsors, along with the public advocate, constituting a veto-proof majority. The incoming mayor, Eric Adams, has already come out in support of the bill.

With roughly 5.6 million registered voters in New York City as of this February, extending voting rights to noncitizens to another 800,000 or more people could be significant, though it’s unlikely that every new eligible voter would actually register to vote.

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 sponsored 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 runoff 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,” Fulvia Vargas-De León, associate counsel at the civil rights advocacy LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said at a City Council hearing on the bill in September. “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 at the September council hearing 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.

The administration isn’t alone in raising concerns about the proposal. City Council Member Kalman Yeger has 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 at the September hearing. “If this is what the state Legislature wishes to do, they can do it. But we can’t.”

Still, the bill is now expected to move forward despite the legal concerns the de Blasio administration and others have raised. 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 at the September hearing 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 nondriver ID number, and their fax number.

Wood, the city’s chief democracy officer, cast doubt at that hearing 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?

Assuming no new major roadblocks in the coming weeks, the legislation is expected to pass in the council next month and seems unlikely to face a veto attempt by de Blasio. But passing the bill is just one hurdle. Implementing the bill – and dealing with any legal challenges – will likely fall to the incoming Adams administration. But in Adams, it seems that advocates for the bill will find a vocal defender. “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 in testimony to the City Council in support of the bill in September. “It should be the easiest vote you take in your career on the City Council.”