To appreciate import of noncitizens voting, look at Maryland city where they already do
As we in Cambridge work to advance voting rights and provide representation to the thousands of noncitizen residents here, it makes sense to look at Takoma Park, a suburb of Washington D.C., widely known for enacting noncitizen voting rights in 1993 – one of six such Maryland municipalities.
Takoma Park’s resolution says all its residents have a valid interest in issues of city governance, by virtue of their residency. The resolution reasons that the decisions of city government directly affect their lives and all residents deserve “an equal opportunity to influence decisions that directly affect their lives.” The right to vote in city elections derives not from citizenship, but from residency.
This view is reflected in citizens’ comments on the resolution. Citizens in favor said a government’s power derives from the consent of the governed, and the consent of all governed citizens created more significant and broader consent. Further, extending voting rights would create a stronger community and unify immigrant communities.
Noncitizen voting in Takoma Park is especially vital because of the high noncitizen population. In 1992, about 23 percent of the population was foreign born. Today the figure is 30 percent. Without noncitizen voting, a significant proportion of the city’s population would be disenfranchised. This observation is especially meaningful in cities such as Cambridge, where more than 28 percent of residents are foreign-born as of a 2014 survey, but only 11 percent of those are naturalized. This disenfranchises about 17 percent of the population, which does not align with Cambridge’s progressive politics.
Looking at Takoma Park, citizens opposing the resolution said political power should not be given to those who do not have ties to the country or community. On the face of it, this is sound, but does not acknowledge that the legal process for citizenship can take decades, all while noncitizens pay taxes and put their children in public schools – still lacking a voice in local matters, including school committee and city council decisions.
Eventually, Takoma Park passed noncitizen voting rights. To register to take part, the city requires a document that establishes residence, such as a apartment lease, driving license or bank statement. In absence of such proof, an applicant can submit an affidavit from another resident.
By most measures, implementation has been a success. George L. Leventhal, a Montgomery County Council member, said in The Washington Post, “What it certainly has not done is to turn Takoma Park into some kind of haven for illegal immigrants. Honestly, I don’t think it’s made any change whatsoever.” This position is supported by Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin, who said, “It makes [noncitizens] feel like they’re part of the community.” Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams argued for continuing the policy, saying, “This makes it so that all of our residents can participate. They live here. We want them to participate in their community.”
Given that noncitizen voting did not have much impact – in 2009, 32 of 436 registered noncitizens voted – it can be argued that the initiative’s goals were not met. “In one sense, the results have been kind of disappointing for some of those who advocated for the change,” said Ronald Hayduk, assistant professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, in the Los Angeles Times. Many noncitizens are simply unaware they can vote. The Times quoted Duwa Mutharika, a native of Zimbabwe, as saying, “This is where you live, this is where you spend your money” – yet Mutharika, like several noncitizens, was not aware she could vote.
It’s worth noting that noncitizens voted legally in every presidential election until 1924. More surprisingly, a century ago, 22 states allowed noncitizen voting in state and national elections – a healthy historical precedent that reminds how the United States is a nation of immigrants that once valued the voices of all those within.
Looking at Takoma Park’s history itself, the genesis for noncitizen voting is fascinating. Wards in Takoma Park were drawn to have equal numbers of residents, but the population of certain wards was half noncitizen. In these wards, a citizen’s vote effectively had twice the value of a vote in others. Since taking the noncitizen population into account is illegal, Takoma Park instead proposed noncitizen voting.
In summary, extending voting rights is not simply about voting, but about highlighting the long and complex citizenship process. Extending noncitizen voting rights recognizes an established history and draws noncitizens into the political process, creating stronger communities that benefit all.
Karan Gill is a Cambridge resident going through the naturalization process.