If Democrats want to truly expand voting rights, they should more vocally advocate for the right of undocumented immigrants to vote in local and statewide elections.
The premise is simple. If you live and work in the U.S., are above the age of 18 and pay taxes, you should be allowed to vote. The concept is as old as the founding of the U.S. – no taxation without representation.
Giving the undocumented the right to vote in Los Angeles and in California would be transformative. It would force more political leaders to pay attention to the concerns of Latino/a/x voters.
It’s also not unprecedented.
From the founding of the country in 1776 until 1926, 40 states at various points allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state and federal elections, according to research by Ron Hayduk, professor of political science at San Francisco State University.
Immigrant men from Europe were allowed to become citizens and vote way before women and Black people were given the right to vote. In 1856, North Carolina was the last state to remove property ownership as a requirement to vote. There also were English-language requirements to vote, which restricted Mexicans from voting after large swaths of Mexico were sold off to the U.S. with the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848.
From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the rise of nativism after World War I, anti-immigrant sentiment led to the rolling back of these voting rights by legislatures in most states.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting noncitizens from voting in federal elections, such as the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and presidential elections. Federal law does not address state or local elections.
In the past three years, voters in Alabama, Colorado, Florida and North Dakota have enacted ballot initiatives that amend their state constitutions to ensure only U.S. citizens have the right to vote. A similar proposed ballot initiative in Maine failed to gather enough signatures.
More municipalities are moving to give non-citizens the right to vote.
In January 2022, around 800,000 people in New York City gained the right to vote with the enactment of a new law allowing legal noncitizens to participate in municipal elections.
Fifteen municipalities across the country allowed noncitizens to vote in local elections as of January 2022. Eleven were located in Maryland, two were located in Vermont, one was New York City.
The city of Takoma Park, Maryland has offered the right to vote to all residents, citizens or not, in local elections since 1993. In San Francisco, non-citizens in that city with children under 19, have been allowed to vote for the school board since 2017. A measure to allow non-citizens to vote is under consideration in San Jose, California. Non-citizens can vote in school board elections in Chicago.
These policy changes have happened despite setbacks at the national level for immigrant rights. Changes to federal immigration policy are deadlocked due to a divided Congress. Efforts to advocate for immigrant rights should still be made there but also at the local level.
Also, 22 democracies around the world grant some form of noncitizen voting, according to the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.
According to the Pew Research Center, there were approximately 25 million noncitizens living in the U.S. as of 2017. That included 12.3 million permanent residents and 2.2 million temporary residents in the country and 10.5 million living in the country without authorization.
In California, more than half (53%) of immigrants are naturalized U.S. citizens, and another 25% have some other status such as green cards and visas, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
According to Pew Research, about 20% of immigrants in California, around 2.2 million people, are undocumented. From 2007 to 2016, the number of undocumented immigrants in the state declined by 550,000.
There are an estimated 900,000 undocumented immigrants in Los Angeles. Most have been here more than 10 years, according to a recent study by the USC Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
This is a potentially powerful bloc of new voters. California is alreadying leading the way on offering health insurance to the undocumented, offering driver’s licenses and educational support for undocumented college students.
Voting rights for the undocumented should be next.