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Hey, de Blasio: How About Pushing Non-Citizen Voting Rights?

David Callahan

It's tough being a progressive mayor when you don't actually have much power. Bill de Blasio's hands aren't just tied when it comes to hiking taxes on the rich or raising the city's minimum wage, both of which hinge on approval in Albany, he also has scant power over the large economic forces that shape life in New York or the generosity of the Federal safety net that keeps roughly half the city's population afloat. 

So the challenge for de Blasio is finding ways to leverage whatever power he does have to do big things -- things that change life in New York City, but also move national debates in new directions. 
Here's one big idea he could get behind: Allowing non-citizens to vote in local New York City elections. 
Just last year, a bill to allow non-citizen voting was introduced in the City Council, where it drew substantial support. It's not a stretch to imagine that such a bill might pass now if it had strong backing from the mayor. Rest assured that this move would make headlines around the nation, and probably the world. 
Why is this issue important? And why would it be a big deal if New York City allowed non-citizens to vote? 
For starters, New York is one of many U.S. cities where a large swath of adult residents can't vote because they are immigrants without citizenship. Some 1.3 million New Yorkers fit this category, or one in five adult residents. In some parts of the city, that share is much larger. 
Of course, though, these New Yorkers pay taxes, send their kids to public schools, and are very much affected by the actions of elected officials. That's a profoundly undemocratic situation. In particular, it violates the principle of no taxation without representation. 
While letting non-citizens vote may sound radical, it's actually quite in keeping with U.S. history, and the city's history, too. Non-citizens could vote in some 40 states for the first 150 years of U.S. history, and even hold office in places. That made a lot of sense in a country fueled by immigrants through the 19th century. And it still makes sense. . .  in a country fueled by immigrants. As for New York City, non-citizens could voted in school board elections for 40 years -- until Mayor Bloomberg abolished the school board. 
Overseas, many countries allow non-citizen voting in local elections and, here, a few towns in Maryland do, too, like Takoma Park. 
If New York City allowed non-citizen voting, that could have big effects elsewhere. There are many cities and towns across the U.S. where non-citizens make up a fifth to a third of residents, posing the same challenges to democracy that New York confronts. 
Even if Congress does grant a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, that path could take years and many people may choose not to become citizens. 
Look, I know that voter turnout for local elections tends to be abysmally low, and that's definitely been true in New York. I know that, realistically, granting voting rights to non-citizens isn't going to lead to big changes in their lives. But such a move would be profoundly symbolic and would help jump start an overdue debate about the widespread disenfranchisement of people who must meet nearly all of the obligations of citizenship yet have none of the rights. 
This is the kind of debate that de Blasio wants to get going. Well, here's his chance.