Déjà Vu All Over Again: Non-Citizen Voting

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 25, 2010

Like the corpse that won't stay buried, efforts to resurrect non-citizen voting this Halloween and election season are again making news. The AP story headline reads: "States Weigh Letting Noncitizens Vote," but the headline itself misinforms. Actually, it's not states that are considering allowing non-citizen voting, but two cities, Portland, Maine, and San Francisco, and this makes a difference.

Even if the referendum passes in either city, it is unclear that it will survive a sure-to-be-mounted court challenge as being illegal under each respective state constitution. In Portland, the city's Charter Commission voted 7-5 against putting that proposal before the voters and at least several of those no votes were a result of the City Attorney Gary Wood's "March 2, 2010 memo to the Portland Charter Commission…[in which he] writes that he thinks stronger legal arguments favor a court decision that would declare the right illegal in light of existing state law which requires citizenship for voter registration."

The same is true in San Francisco. That ballot initiative, if successful, would allow parents to vote in local school board elections – not, as in Portland, in municipal elections. Still, the same problem of running up against the legalities of statewide prohibitions against allowing non-citizens to vote is present there as well. The headline of an article on the subject is pretty clear: "Noncitizen voting plan on shaky ground / City attorney says charter amendment would probably be struck down in court." That articles goes on, "A City Charter amendment before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors today to give noncitizen parents and guardians of public school children the right to vote in Board of Education elections would probably be struck down if challenged in court, according to City Attorney Dennis Herrera. In a memo providing legal advice to supervisors on board President Matt Gonzalez's proposal to place the amendment on the November ballot, Herrera said the measure would probably be found to conflict with California constitutional requirements on voter eligibility."

Little mention is made is of these facts.

Worse, the AP story noting that "States Weigh Letting Noncitizens Vote" totally ignores the most obvious questions regarding the story's narrative centerpiece, one Claude Rwaganje, who has lived in Portland "for 13 years" and yet "isn't allowed to vote."

My goodness! He's lived in Maine for 13 years (no word in the story on how much longer he may have lived in the United States) and he "isn't allowed to vote?" How awful. How could that have happened?

Is it possible that in his 13 years as a Maine resident he didn't apply for citizenship, which requires only five years of legal residency? It would seem so. Mr. Rwaganje could have applied for citizenship any year during the 13 years after he reached the five-year mark as a legal U.S. resident, but didn't. He didn't take advantage of those years of opportunity to become a citizen, but now complains that "Noncitizens hold down jobs, pay taxes, own businesses, volunteer in the community and serve in the military, and it's only fair they be allowed to vote."

These are among the typical talking points of non-citizen voting advocates, that I have taken have taken up at length in two long papers (here and here) and in a book, and will summarize in my next entry.

We don't know why Mr. Rwaganje chose not to available himself of the opportunity to become an American citizen and gain the right to vote, but we are given more information of another Portland resident, Abdirizak Daud, 40. Mr. Daud, "moved to Minneapolis 18 years ago before coming to Portland in 2006… Some of his nine children have attended Portland schools, and he'd like to have a say in who's looking over the school system and the city."

Yes, that's understandable, but he has been in the country at least since 1992 and would have been eligible to apply for citizenship in 1997 (or maybe 1998, if he arrived as a refugee), and considering it is now over a decade later, why has he not done so? The story gives this reason: "But, between his limited English and the financial demands, Daud hasn't been able to become a citizen" (emphasis added).

"But"? Allow me translate. Mr. Daud would like to have a say in city and school affairs, but in 18 years of living in this country, he has not learned the rudimentary basics of the English language necessary in order to pass a very low language bar on the citizenship examination. Oh, and then there are the financial demands that kept Mr. Doud from applying for citizenship for the past decade. One wonders how the 743,715 immigrants became citizens in FY 2009 managed to do so.

Finally, in keeping with what apparently is AP's idea of fair and balanced reporting, this 885-word article gives 503 words of space to the pro-non-citizen voting side of the debate (56 percent), while allotting only 162 words of coverage to the other side of the debate (18 percent).

Seems fair to me.