Immigrants and Voting Rights

Guest Commentary

Volume CIV, No. 6June, 2004

Cheryl Wertz

New York City is now home to over one million immigrants of voting age who are not yet citizens. That means that one out of every five New Yorkers of voting age can’t vote!

As residents of this city they are subject to all the same laws as citizens. And although they are not citizens they contribute in countless ways to the economic vitality and social and cultural life of this city. According to the Urban Institute, immigrants on an annual basis pay $18.2 billion in taxes, which is 15.5 percent of the state’s tax income.

Nevertheless, because of their citizenship status, these “new New Yorkers” are excluded from the process of electing the people who make the policies that affect their lives daily.

For most of this country’s history — from the 1770’s to the 1920’s — twenty-two states and federal territories permitted non-citizen residents to vote in local, state and federal elections, and to hold public offices such as alderman, coroner and school board member. It was not until 1804 that New York denied non-citizen immigrants the right to vote in state and local elections.

Today, a coalition of immigrant and faith-based groups, labor unions, civil rights and voting rights organizations as well as community based-organizations, have come together to advocate for the restoration of voting rights to all residents of New York City, regardless of their citizenship status.


Resident voting is a principle that dates back to the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation.” To our founding fathers, immigrant voting was a logical way to encourage newcomers to build a stake in the emerging American democracy.

Today, after more than three decades of high immigration, nearly 20 million non-citizen immigrants in the United States pay taxes, work in every sector of the economy, own businesses, send their children to school, contribute in myriad ways to our cultural life, serve in the military and even die defending this country. Yet most cannot vote on issues that affect their daily lives.

Expanding the franchise is a logical and practical way to unite all members of our society toward a common dream of making America a better place. It gives people a stake in their communities and a sense that they can make things better. Far from being a substitute for citizenship, allowing the newest New Yorkers to vote is the best way to promote civic education and participation. Most immigrants want to become citizens, but the backlog in processing applications means that the average immigrant could wait 10 years or longer to become a citizen.


Many communities in the United States — not to mention more than twenty countries around the world — recognize these clear reasons for allowing local residents to vote regardless of their citizenship. Already, several U.S. jurisdictions allow immigrants to vote in local elections. Over the past decade, at least a dozen other communities have launched campaigns from coast to coast to expand the franchise to non-citizens.

Maryland allows non-citizens to vote in municipal elections in five towns; Amherst and Cambridge, Massachusetts, voted to approve non-citizen voting, though they are awaiting a state enabling law. Similar initiatives have been launched in a dozen other places from coast to coast, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C, Denver, and Connecticut.

In a move that affirmed parents’ stake in the education of their children, New York City and Chicago restored the right of non-citizens to vote in school board elections. In New York City, all immigrants — legal permanent residents and undocumented immigrants — who had children in public schools could vote in school board elections from 1970 until last year, when the school boards were eliminated. Problems with the school boards aside, they were the city’s most representative elected bodies in terms of race and ethnicity.

New York, home of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, symbolizes America’s past and future as an immigrant nation. It would only be fitting for New York City to restore voting to all residents in municipal elections, expanding our democracy and setting an example fitting for a city created by immigrants.

Cheryl Wertz is the director of the government access and accountability campaign at the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights. For more information, visit