There They Go Again: Non-Citizen Voting Arguments: Round II – 'Fairness'

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 27, 2010

Moral arguments are central to the American immigration debate. Whatever side of the various immigration policy debates Americans find themselves on, questions of fairness, right and wrong, morality, and appeals to basic ethical principals are never very far away. Moral and ethical terms like, "justice" and "fairness" permeate immigration debate. If you Google the terms "fairness" and "immigration" together, you come up with 1.8 million items.

So what of the "fairness" of allowing non-citizens to vote? Don't non-citizens pay taxes, and therefore isn't it unfair not to allow them to vote? That argument assumes that non-citizens get nothing for their taxes, and need the vote to compensate for that. However, the truth is that immigrants from most countries enjoy an immediately rise in their standard of living because of this country's advanced infrastructure – for example, hospitals, electricity, communications. They also get many services for their taxes – like public transportation, police, trash collection, and so on.

What of serving in the armed forces? If they can serve, why can't they vote? The difference here is between "can" and "must." Non-citizens can serve if they volunteer, but they are not required to serve as part of the citizenship process. When they do volunteer, they earn this country's gratitude and, by presidential order, a shortening of the time period before they can become citizens.

Doesn't voting help immigrants learn about their new country? Yes, but the fallacy of that argument is the assumption that there are not other, less-damaging, ways to do so. No law bars non-citizens from learning democracy in civic organizations or political parties. No law keeps them from joining unions or speaking out in public forums. Indeed, no law bars them from holding responsible positions within all these groups. In all of these many ways, legal residents can learn about their new country and its civic traditions. Voting is not the only means to do so, and may not even be the best since it can be done from start to finish with the pull of a lever.

What of representation? Isn't it bad for democracy and against our principles to have so many people unrepresented? The first problem with this argument is that the condition is temporary and easily remedied by time and patience. Second, the very fact that advocates push non-citizen voting undercuts the argument that this group's interests are not represented. This country is a republic, not a democracy. We depend on our representatives to consider diverse views. The views of legal non-citizen residents are no exception. The more such persons take advantage of the many opportunities to participate in our civic and political life, the more their voices will be heard.

Well, what about participation? Won't giving non-citizens the vote increase participation, and isn't that good for democracy? The answers to those two questions are no and maybe. The record of non-citizen voters should lead all of us to pause and reflect. When New York City allowed non-citizens to vote in local school board elections, presumably something in which they had a direct, personal, and immediate stake, less that 5 percent of that group did so. Takoma Park, MD, often cited as a model by advocates, refuses to ascertain whether non-citizen voters are in the country legally. Even so, their participation went from a high point of 25 percent in 1997, to 12 percent in the next election, and 9 percent in the election thereafter. In the end, general participation was raised by a mere 41 votes – a very small gain upon which to sacrifice such a core element of American citizenship.

There are many things this country could and should do to make new immigrants feel welcome. We could, and should, provide free English classes to all those who want them – and that want is great. We could set up classes to help immigrants learn about the nuts and bolts of our country's life – how you get insurance, why you raise your hand in class, etc. We take these things for granted, but new immigrants cannot. If elected officials really want to help new immigrants, these initiatives would be of direct and immediate benefit and won't have the downside of destroying citizenship.

Every effort should be made to integrate legal immigrants into our national community. Yet, isn't it fair to ask that they know something about it before they fully take up the responsibilities, and not just the advantages, of what has been the core of citizenship?

Advocates of non-citizen voting do not discuss whether these new voters would need to demonstrate language proficiency or knowledge of this country, as they must now do for naturalization. Would that requirement be waived? Nor have they said what they would do if many decided there was no longer a need to become a citizen – since they already could vote.

In the end, we do immigrants and this country no favor – indeed, we likely do damage – by giving in to demands for erasing the distinction between immigrant and citizen.