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New York City will allow 800,000 noncitizens to vote in local elections


Lawmakers in New York City have approved legislation that will allow about 800,000 legal non-citizens to vote in local elections. The decision centered on one big question - who exactly should have a stake in American democracy? I talked with Ron Hayduk about this. He's a political science professor at San Francisco State University and the author of "Democracy For All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights In The United States."

Explain the significance, as you see it, of the decision in New York to extend voting rights in local elections to non-citizen immigrants.

RON HAYDUK: New York City, once again, has put this issue on the map for folks around the country by restoring voting rights to the 1 in 3 folks in New York City who are foreign-born. And so that could redound into other jurisdictions that have been considering restoring voting rights to immigrants in the country.

MARTIN: And explain the word restoring, which - some people may not know that this used to be the case in the U.S.

HAYDUK: Yes, most people are quite surprised to learn that it was common practice in the United States for immigrants to be able to vote. Folks might remember that the criteria for voting historically was not citizenship per se, but it was whether one was white, male and a property owner. So it was race, gender and class that mattered in terms of who is a member of the political community and had voting rights formally.

So, yes, 40 states - when we didn't even have 50 states - at one point in time, allowed immigrants to vote from 1776 until 1926, not just in local elections, which is what's happening in New York City and Maryland and in Vermont and San Francisco, but also in state and federal elections. And immigrants could also run for office.

MARTIN: What changed?

HAYDUK: Well, kind of - some of the similar dynamics we're seeing today. The controversy surrounding newcomers - whether they were the Irish or the Germans, the Italians, the Jews - spurred controversies about the nature of those folks and their capacity to assimilate, in the language of the day, into American culture or the effects that they were having on the country. Were they displacing people from jobs? Were they changing the nature of the culture, the national identity? And that sparked a response and reaction.

MARTIN: So what's been the pushback? I mean, as noted, there have been other efforts to give legal non-citizens the right to vote in local elections - LA, Boston, Chicago. Why did those efforts fail?

HAYDUK: Well, in many of those cases, the vote in either the city council or a referendum, in the case of Portland, Maine, was quite close. One of the most common objections is, you know, immigrants have a pathway to voting, and that's to become a citizen. And that's the mechanism by which they should get the right to vote. This is a valuable right. We don't want to dilute the value of citizenship, but we want to retain incentives for immigrants to naturalize and become citizens.

MARTIN: New York's own mayor, Bill de Blasio, said he was concerned about this, that the measure would discourage people from getting citizenship. Is there any evidence of that?

HAYDUK: Actually, not. For the most part, you know, most immigrants that are here want to become citizens, but the process to become a citizen is not so simple and easy and fast, like it was for my ancestors or most folks from Europe that came to the United States in the 19th century. It actually takes, on average, about seven or eight years to become a citizen. Even if you are eligible for citizenship, which lawful permanent residents are, you know, it's - eight years is the - a two-term city council member or mayor. And, of course, the costs involved and the - there's a citizenship test that's quite rigorous. And so that logic that people should just get on the pathway to citizenship is a bit flawed.

MARTIN: We can't ignore the political context of the moment, right? There is a debate about how open America's democracy really is. You've got one party in this country, the GOP, actively trying to limit the number of people who can vote. Is there a partisan edge to this movement to enfranchise immigrant non-citizens?

HAYDUK: Well, in the case of New York, New York City is a largely Democratic town. So the partisan sort of fights in New York City tend to be within the Democratic Party. But, of course, between the parties, the folks who are most opposed to this legislation in New York and elsewhere are, in fact, in the Republican Party ranks or conservative groups. And those that are in favor tend to be more Democratic in - if they have a party affiliation. But it does tend to draw on liberal and conservative or left and right axes.

MARTIN: When you think about the arc of American history, where does this moment fit in if we presume that New York will set a precedent for other cities to follow, to give immigrant non-citizens the right to vote?

HAYDUK: Well, think about it. If there is a sizable portion of the population that is excluded - we're talking about, you know, 1 in 3 people in Los Angeles, 1 in 4 people in the state of California and in Texas; it's almost that in parts of Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C. In parts of the country, there's a sizable portion of the population that can't vote. And so, you know, we look back at our history and say, you know, it was wrong to exclude African Americans and women and young people before laws were changed to incorporate them into the electorate. How is this different in some ways?

Immigrants are counted for districting purposes. They pay billions of taxes. They, you know, send their kids to school. They work in businesses. They've been the essential workers. They even own businesses. What do these conditions mean for such basic democratic principles as one person, one vote, government rests on the consent of the governed and no taxation without representation? There's nothing as surefired (ph) as the vote. It's a tried-and-true mechanism to keep representatives responsive and accountable to all constituents.

MARTIN: Ron Hayduk - he's a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. We appreciate your time. Thank you.

HAYDUK: Thank you, Rachel.