New York City will give noncitizens the right to vote in local elections, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday.
The city’s Board of Elections will set rules for getting on the ballot. Registrants can still be barred from voting as a security measure, but need not have proof of citizenship or permanent resident status in order to register.
Some 8.5 million people in the country don’t have legal permission to live in the U.S., a number that includes 2.3 million students, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Riders at both the New York and New Jersey Transit have represented communities of color in local elections for years, in what some activists have called “the transit experiment” on voting rights. Local immigration laws prohibit New Jersey Transit workers from getting out of work unless they can show a valid driver’s license.
“The freedom to vote in our elections does not translate into the right to vote,” de Blasio said at an event in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in northeast Manhattan. “New York City has made a commitment to make it easier to vote and to vote without fear.”
De Blasio, who grew up in poverty in Queens, has long been a vocal advocate for people in poverty to have the same opportunities as those who have money. A joint survey by the Center for American Progress and the New York Immigration Coalition found that 30 percent of low-income New Yorkers have felt unable to use the right to vote because of immigration status.
Cities throughout the U.S. have passed similar initiatives, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. More than 20 states restrict access to voting for people who don’t have a legal right to vote in the U.S., according to the Advancement Project, a legal advocacy group.
However, the state of Washington state passed a similar measure earlier this year, and statewide Republican leaders sued to block it. Republican Gov. Jay Inslee has argued that the Washington case offers a model for the rest of the country.
It’s not clear how any legal challenges would affect the provision in New York. But the federal Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit already has upheld attempts by New York’s lower courts to block jurisdictions from adopting such policies. New York is appealing that ruling.
The federal lawsuit by the Trump administration said it would discourage the “magnitude of future electoral change and commit the state to a process that would enfranchise only the most tepid political rivals of the other political party and citizen advocacy organizations such as the Legal Aid Society and the Brennan Center.”
A coalition of groups including the Advancement Project and the Asian American Justice Center had urged the Trump administration to overturn that ruling, arguing that the case “provides a clear opportunity to reaffirm a core democratic principle that belongs to the entire nation, regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin.”
“We are now at a critical point in the history of New York City. Across the city, immigrants have a valuable stake in democracy and stand to lose that in a rush to conform to federal laws that cut off voting rights for people with the misfortune of not being American citizens,” said Agostino Antonio, founder of the TransAction Coalition, in a statement.
“Access to elections is an essential right. By enabling people living in the country without proper permission to vote, New York’s values truly become true,” he said.
The cases has its roots in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave special legal protection to African-Americans who were barred from voting by many states and counties with histories of discrimination. New York was one of nine states covered by the law at the time. The city was added to the list of covered jurisdictions in 1983 and renewed in 1988, 1993 and 2006.
If the federal court decides to uphold the lower court rulings, the city is not expected to reverse course and remove the restriction. The law has been in place for less than a decade, requiring that anyone wishing to register be a citizen or a permanent resident, unless registered to vote at a state or local board of elections office or official. Those who lack legal permission to be in the U.S. cannot participate in primary or general elections.