New York City on Tuesday became the nation’s largest city to give noncitizens the right to vote in local elections.
Elected officials in New York joined thousands of protesters across the country in signing a ballot measure that mandates all candidates running for city office—from Mayor Bill de Blasio to public advocate Letitia James—have been citizens for at least two years. Those who didn’t meet the requirement won’t be able to run for office until a 2021 special election.
After a two-year pilot period during which the city’s Board of Elections told noncitizens they didn’t have to pay to get on the voting rolls, officials are now implementing a streamlined process to make it easier for noncitizens to become eligible voters. The Board of Elections has also changed its oath of citizenship form, which now does not require immigrants to prove they are American citizens under penalty of perjury.
“It is a momentous day for New York City,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said at a news conference announcing the new policy.
A 2012 study by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found that 60 percent of immigrants voted in local elections in 2011, but only 11 percent were eligible to vote. This was a rate lower than native-born voters—although, according to the Brennan Center, nearly half of immigrants said they did not know if they were eligible to vote.
The city is working to make it easier for immigrants to access the voter rolls. For the past year, thousands of immigrants have sought help to get on the election rolls, said Fernando Mateo, the president of the New York State Democratic Committee.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New York filed a brief in a Brooklyn federal court last week in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to allow noncitizens to vote in state and city elections in New York. The suit is part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Public Advocate Letitia James, who say the city’s policy violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The city has a “history of discrimination against noncitizens and leaders and policies that seem to be punitive, especially in the context of immigration,” said Richard Emery, the executive director of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “Because the federal government has chosen to create roadblocks between potential noncitizens and their right to vote, they want to create such bureaucratic roadblocks to endow voting access to eligible noncitizens.”
The lawsuit is seeking to have the Department of Motor Vehicles issue provisional identification cards to eligible noncitizens who want to vote. If the courts strike down New York’s policy, the group will be asking the state to allow people who already have a driver’s license to vote in their elections.
“If a woman is pregnant or has a baby, a Republican Party, Democrats, a non-partisan — those are rights. There is no reason why they shouldn’t have access to the polls,” said Claudia Hojei-Sanchez, a South-Asian immigrant who lives in Queens.
New York City is the first city in the country to enact this policy. Boston, San Francisco, the state of California and the cities of Seattle and Hartford, Conn., also have granted noncitizens the right to vote in local elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.