While many critics skewer President Obama’s recent amnesty-granting executive action, D.C.’s municipal lawmakers have their own plans for the next battle on the immigration-citizenship front. Invoking considerations of fairness and justice against “anti-immigrant hysteria,” D.C. council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) and several fellow councilmembers on Tuesday introduced the Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, a bill to grant non-American citizens residing in the D.C.-area the ability to vote in municipal elections.
In keeping with similar initiatives in 2013 and 2004, the bill would give suffrage to non-citizen D.C. residents who “have permanent residency status.” Grosso cited U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2012 approximating that over 90 percent of the 53,975 foreign-born, non-naturalized U.S. citizens in the District are 18 years of age or older, to weight down with seriousness his pronouncement that “these are taxpayers who should have the opportunity to have their voices heard in local elections.”
If the bill passes, it would not make D.C. the first to have allowed non-citizens to vote in local elections. Currently, half a dozen towns or jurisdictions in Maryland, including Takoma Park, allow the practice, while Chicago allows all (presumably legal) residents to vote in school board elections. In much the same vein, non-citizens in California now have the right to act as poll monitors, to practice law (even if an illegal alien), and also to serve on juries.
Grosso’s explicit statement that “the time is now to reignite” this movement should catch no one by surprise, however. When the president effectively denied the right of 300,000,000+ American citizens to exercise their choice as to who counts and who doesn’t as part of the body politic—a core component of liberal self-rule—he was diluting not just the entire concept of citizenship, but also the representative principle that helps secures the rights of citizenship.
The New York Times editorial board put it this way in 2004: “The most important privilege that comes with [U.S.] citizenship is the right to vote.” What’s missing from the NYT’s statement is the explanation: As the Supreme Court ruled in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1866), the political franchise of voting is a “fundamental political right, because” it is “preservative of all rights.”
Voting in American elections is a privilege of American citizenship, because voting is the vehicle of the consent of the governed to the laws and institutions that will order and shape their life. The universal truth “that all men are created equal…and that just government derives its powers from the consent of the governed” that is trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence is particularized for Americans in the American system of constitutional government, which secures these natural rights for the people of the United States.
The ability to express via the voting mechanism on-going consent to the American political order is how that original equality is maintained in the circumstances of the political community. Reflected in lawmaking, voting, and the jury system, that expression of equality on the part of existing citizens must also be respected when considering new members to the American political community, and the enfranchisement of resident non-citizens.
For two decades now non-citizens have been allowed to vote in Takoma Park elections, and for two decades the voter participation rate has not increased. The push for non-citizen voting represents a decoupling of citizenship and political rights that blurs the distinction between citizen and alien, and between national and foreigner, that reaches to the nature of state sovereignty itself. Citizenship is only invigorated when existing citizens are not prevented from exercising their rights, privileges, and immunities. This in turn nourishes a healthy civic life, and a healthy nation.