In advance of the 2009 citywide elections, a coalition of immigrant and advocacy organizations is reigniting a fight to give noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections, drawing the ire of opponents who argue that voting is a right for American citizens only.
At a rally outside City Hall yesterday organized by the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, supporters of a City Council bill that would extend voting rights to 1.3 million noncitizen New Yorkers said it's unfair that immigrant residents pay more than $18 billion in state income taxes when they can't vote for their representatives. The group is planning to pressure elected officials to back the legislation, which has been on file for more than two years but hasn't moved forward.
A supporter of the bill, Council Member Robert Jackson of Harlem, said in his district alone there are about 40,000 people who are paying taxes and don't have the right to vote. He said the coalition needed to publicize the position of every council member on the proposal and the reasons for their stances.
He suggested that those opposed to giving noncitizens the right to vote might be motivated by racism, and noted that in the early years of American history noncitizens were allowed to vote. That ended after World War I.
"This was the law in the United States of America for many, many years and why don't they support it now? Is it what somebody said earlier — because if you look at the skin complexion of the immigrants now they are mainly people of color versus 100 years ago, when they mainly were white," he said. "These are questions that people have to start asking."
The question of whether noncitizens should be allowed to vote has surfaced in the city within the past few years, but has never gained sufficient momentum among the city's elected officials. Supporters of the plan said yesterday that they aim to capitalize on the attention that will be paid to the 2009 municipal elections, when every citywide office will be up for grabs, as well as 36 council seats.
Noncitizens in New York with children in public school had been allowed to vote in school board elections until the boards were abolished in 2002.
Any campaign to extend voting rights to noncitizens would be expected to face fierce opposition from the mayor and other council members who have held back their support from the bill.
A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, Stuart Loeser, wrote in an e-mail message yesterday that the mayor "is superlatively pro-immigration and vehemently disagrees with those who demonize immigrants to score cheap points, but he believes just as strongly that the right to vote is a privilege and a responsibility for citizens only."
The Republican leader of the council, James Oddo of Staten Island, said it's a ridiculous idea to allow noncitizens to vote, and that supporters of the council bill should be using their energy to help noncitizens become citizens.
"Citizenship is a privilege that gives birth to certain rights and included in that is the ability to vote in these elections," he said. Mr. Oddo said he'd rather focus on "aggressively weeding out" the noncitizens who have registered to vote.
"To me, that's unacceptable," he said.