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New York City will allow 800,000 non-citizens to vote in local elections: NPR

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York City lawmakers passed law that allows approximately 800,000 legal non-citizens to vote in local elections. At the center of the decision was one big question: who exactly should be part of American democracy? I spoke to Ron Hayduk about it. He is Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University and author of Democracy For All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights In The United States.

Explain the importance of the New York decision to extend the right to vote in local elections to include non-citizens of immigrants, as you see them.

RON HAYDUK: New York City has put this issue back on the map for people across the country by restoring the right to vote for 1 in 3 people in New York City who are overseas born. And that could affect other jurisdictions that are considering restoring immigrant voting rights in the country.

MARTIN: And explain the word restoration, what – some people may not know that this used to be the case in the US

HAYDUK: Yes, most people are quite surprised to learn that it was common in the United States for immigrants to vote. People may remember that in the past, the criterion for voting was not citizenship per se, but whether one was knowledgeable, male, or an owner. So it was race, gender, and class that mattered who was a member of the political community and who had formal voting rights.

So, yes, 40 states – when we didn’t even have 50 states – at one point allowed immigrants to vote from 1776 to 1926, not just in local elections, which was in New York City and Maryland and Vermont and San Francisco, but also in state elections. and federal elections. Immigrants could also run for office.

MARTIN: What has changed?

HAYDUK: Well, kind of – some of the similar dynamics we’re seeing today. The controversy over newcomers – be they Irish or Germans, Italians or Jews – sparked controversy over the nature of these people and their ability to assimilate in the language of the times into American culture or the impact they were on the countryside to have. Did they crowd people out of jobs? Did they change the essence of culture, national identity? And that sparked a reaction and reaction.

MARTIN: What was the pushback? I mean, as I mentioned earlier, there have been other efforts to give legal non-citizens the right to vote in local elections – LA, Boston, Chicago. Why did these efforts fail?

HAYDUK: Well, in a lot of those cases the vote, either in the city council or in a referendum in the case of Portland, Maine, was pretty close. One of the most common objections is that immigrants have one option, which is to become citizens. And that is the mechanism by which they should be given the right to vote. This is a valuable right. We do not want to dilute the value of citizenship, but we want to encourage immigrants to naturalize and become citizens.

MARTIN: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was concerned that the measure would discourage people from obtaining citizenship. Is there any evidence of this?

HAYDUK: Not really. Most of the immigrants that are here want to become citizens, but the process of becoming a citizen is not as simple and easy and quick as it was for my ancestors or most of the people from Europe who came to the United States States in the 19th century. In fact, it takes an average of about seven or eight years to become a citizen. Even if you are eligible for citizenship, which are legal permanent residents, you know it is – for eight years – a two-year councilor or mayor. And of course the costs involved and – there is a pretty strict naturalization test. And so, the logic that people should just go on the road to citizenship is a bit flawed.

MARTIN: We can’t ignore the current political context, can we? There’s a debate about how open America’s democracy really is. You have a party in this country, the GOP, which is actively trying to limit the number of voters. Is there a partisan benefit to this movement in giving immigrants who are not citizens the right to vote?

HAYDUK: Well, in the case of New York, New York City is a largely democratic city. So the partisan struggles in New York City tend to take place within the Democratic Party. But among the parties, the people in New York and elsewhere who are most against this legislation are actually in the ranks of the Republican Party or in conservative groups. And those who are for it tend to be more democratic – if they have party affiliation. But it is based more on liberal and conservative or left and right axes.

MARTIN: When you think about the arc of American history, where does this moment fit when we assume that New York will set a precedent for other cities to give immigrants who are not citizens the right to vote?

HAYDUK: Well, think about it. When a significant portion of the population is excluded – we’re talking about 1 in 3 people in Los Angeles, 1 in 4 people in California and Texas; in parts of Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, DC it is almost like that. In parts of the country there is a sizable segment of the population who cannot vote. So we look back on our history and say it was wrong to exclude African Americans, women and young people before changing laws to include them in the electorate. How is that different in some ways?

Immigrants are counted for district purposes. They pay billions in taxes. They send their children to school. They work in companies. They were the most important workers. They even own stores. What do these conditions mean for such basic democratic principles as a person, a vote, a government based on the consent of the governed and no taxation without representation? Nothing is as certain (ph) as voting. It is a proven mechanism for maintaining the responsiveness and accountability of representatives to all constituents.

MARTIN: Ron Hayduk – he’s a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. We value your time. Thanks very much.

HAYDUK: Thanks Rachel.

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