Massachusetts, Cradle of the American Revolution, Moves To Allow Non-Citizen Voting — Just Like Louis Brandeis Predicted

It aims for legal immigrants at first, with, maybe, illegal immigrants to follow.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The Massachusetts State House at Boston. Via Wikimedia Commons

Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that a “single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

It looks like Massachusetts might try that route in respect of voting by not only legal immigrants but also illegal immigrants. Democratic state lawmakers in the Bay State have proposed bills that would enable non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. 

The measures, introduced last month, would extend voting rights to “noncitizen voters of the commonwealth” for local elections, including those for the mayor, city council, and school board. 

Though the proposal would likely apply to only legal residents, it comes on the heels of increased debate about immigration in light of America’s border crisis, totaling roughly 2.8 million migrants in fiscal year 2022, an increase of more than 60 percent from fiscal year 2021, NBC News is reporting. 

Massachusetts made headlines in September, when Governor DeSantis sent two planes of illegal immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, an affluent Massachusetts island that pledges to be a “sanctuary.” Governors Abbott of Texas and Ducey of Arizona sent buses to more urban destinations, including the Columbia District and New York. All the migrants signed waivers that the trip was voluntary. 

Though expressly prohibited at the federal level per a law passed in 1996, the proposal to extend local voting rights to non-citizens for state and local elections is not novel. A Connecticut state representative filed in February a more radical piece of legislation that would have offered the vote in municipal and state elections to both legal and illegal immigrants. That measure, though, would require altering the state’s constitution. 

A state representative at Rhode Island has put forth a plan that would allow counties to decide whether to permit illegal residents to vote in local elections.  In October, just before the 2022 election, legislation from the District of Columbia’s city council gave local voting rights to 50,000 non-citizens, including those who had recently arrived in buses from Texas.

The United States House of Representatives tried to block the bill in February, but the Senate failed to review the bill within the 30-day window required to block any legislation by the capital’s city council. 

Not all efforts to give non-citizens the franchise have been successful. In June last year, a New York state judge struck down New York City’s measure that would have allowed 800,000 non-citizens, though only those in the United States legally, to vote. 

In a webinar last year, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Alex Keyssar, pointed out that non-citizen voting dates back two hundred years, when state governments, which wanted to increase their populations, “thought it’d be attractive to potential immigrants to know that they didn’t have to wait five years to become citizens.” Anti-immigrant rhetoric, he says, led states to repeal nearly all of these laws.

A director at the voter advocacy nonprofit MassVote, Vanessa Snow, testified that she supports the bills enfranchising non-citizens because they are “essential to our communities” and “need to have a say in how public services are funded and governed,” particularly since their children, who may be citizens, often go to public schools. 

Ms. Snow did not specify whether she supports voting rights for illegal residents, but all the legislation presented at the hearing aims to enfranchise only legal residents. While the hearing primarily focused on voting measures at the local level, one testimony suggested that allowing for variation in election procedures at a more local level could have ramifications for elections at a larger scale. 

Republicans have, for the most part, opposed the measures: “Allowing noncitizens and illegal immigrants to vote in our elections opens our country up to foreign influence, and allows those who are openly violating US law or even working for hostile foreign governments to take advantage and direct our resources against our will,” Senator Cruz said in a statement. 

Annette Wong, who works for Chinese for Affirmative Action, said in the Kennedy School webinar that, following the 2016 election of President Trump, she viewed measures that expand voting to noncitizens as “a step to take hold of power rather than falling into panic.” 

Recent immigrants tend to vote Democratic, a statistic that is no less true in Massachusetts, where 67 percent of immigrants vote Democratic, compared to only 17 percent who vote Republican, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center. In New York, those numbers were similar, at 60 percent and 15 percent, respectively. 

More local legislation could, however, set the stage for expanding voting eligibility at a statewide, or perhaps national, level. A director of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Nancy Brumback, did not specify when testifying at the hearing that she supported the measure to give voting to non-citizens, but she did suggest that legislation that expands voting could have implications for voting on a larger scale. 

Ms. Brumback encouraged municipalities to “explore a variety of ways to hold elections,” which she said could “provide the knowledge and experience with different election formats” which the “Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] itself may find useful.” It would make the ghost of Justice Brandeis proud.

The New York Sun

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