There They Go Again: Non-Citizen Voting Arguments: Round I

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 26, 2010

One of the frustrations, perhaps to be expected, in debates about American immigration issues is how often the same hackneyed arguments are repeated. Take the question of whether non-citizens should be allowed to vote.

The AP story on efforts to pass such legislation in Portland, Maine and San Francisco, (which I blogged on the other day here) takes to heart Captain Renault's iconic order in Casablanca: Round up the usual suspects.

In this case it one of the leaders of the movement to gain voting right for non-citizens who delivers the usual clichés: "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."

Not to be outdone, another advocate is quoted as saying: "We look back in history and we say that was a bad thing that we didn't allow African-Americans to vote, or we didn't allow half the population, women, to vote, or we didn't allow younger people to vote... We've modified our election laws to become more inclusive to incorporate more members of society."

Would there be any difference in this advocate's mind between denying African Americans the vote, no matter what, and using violence and intimidation to enforce racial apartheid and, on the other hand, allowing every immigrant to vote after living here for five years and passing a basic test of English and civics?

Apparently not.

As to the hackneyed talking points on this issue, I have addressed these issues at length in two long papers (here and here and in a book, but perhaps they merit brief repeating.

Advocates advance many arguments for non-citizen voting. It is only fair, they say, since non-citizens already pay taxes and can serve in the military. It provides an ideal way for new immigrants to learn about citizenship, they assert. It helps new immigrants feel more welcomed and included, they argue. It ensures that those who are not yet citizens will be represented, they suggest. And, it will help to increase declining rates of political participation, they promise.

These arguments seem reasonable. To advocates they are compelling. Yet a closer look at each suggests they are neither.

In the AP story one advocate argues as he has for many years that, "Historically, 40 states allowed noncitizens to vote going back to 1776, but an anti-immigrant backlash in the late 1800s and early 1900s resulted in laws that eliminated their voting rights by 1926." It is true that over 80 years ago, some states allowed resident non-citizens to vote in the hope of gaining help in developing their territories. However, this was always an exception to a more general rule that preserved voting for citizens. By the 1920s, that practice had been ended by legislation, duly debated and passed by the people's representatives and signed into law by their governors, and with good reason.

Voting has always been a critical element of full citizenship; courts have called it the essential element. Voting is one of the few, and doubtlessly the major, difference between citizens and non-citizens. Citizenship itself, and open access to it, is one of the major unifying mechanisms of e pluribus unum. When citizenship loses its value – and it would if voting were not an earned privilege – a critical tie that helps bind this diverse country together will be lost. Given the challenges that face us, this should not be done lightly.

Next: There They Go Again: Non-Citizen Voting Arguments: Round II - "Fairness"