New York city lawmakers on Thursday approved a measure to give noncitizens the right to vote in local elections, a move that could spark legal challenges from those who oppose immigration, as well as a court challenge from those in favor of immigration.
The City Council voted 30-6 to endorse the measure, which comes months after The New York Times reported that the City Council had been considering giving noncitizens the right to vote.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said at a news conference following the vote that it was not a blanket move to allow all immigrants to vote. Johnson proposed the measure because he said he believed voting is a fundamental right that should apply to everyone.
“For me, it’s a question of fairness,” he said. “When your leaders never bother to speak about who you are and how you live your lives, that’s something you can’t get to know.”
However, supporters of giving noncitizens the right to vote have struggled to bring the idea to a vote.
Advocates for immigration rights objected to a provision of the proposal that said voter registration would be optional, and city officials were concerned that noncitizens would face barriers to voting because they may lack identification or may not be U.S. citizens.
“What we oppose is the idea that access to the ballot box means you’re automatically entitled to a ballot,” said Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s problematic because the City Council bill does not offer an option.”
Supporters of giving noncitizens the right to vote, such as New York Assemblywoman Gabriela Rosa, said voting was a basic right and that it should be extended to any noncitizen who wants to cast a ballot.
The city’s elections chief, Cynthia Beekley, has also said that allowing noncitizens to vote would be a logistical challenge that she thinks would be too difficult for city officials to handle.
Supporters of voting rights for noncitizens have said their concern was not that they don’t have the vote and in fact that several states have taken steps to make voting easier for immigrants without citizenship.
But they also argue that being on the electoral rolls could hurt the legitimacy of elections and make it harder for immigrants to prove their identity. (Johnson, noting the obstacle of how to verify identification for those without documents, said his measure was not a violation of current law.)
The Times reported in October that a measure in California that would have let noncitizens vote in state legislative elections had come under debate at the state Legislature, and the issue of who should be allowed to vote there had been brought up in New York’s state Legislature.
The New York measure passed Thursday is nonbinding and would require final approval of the city council. It would give the noncitizen the right to vote in local municipal elections, such as the city council, city comptroller and public advocate.
Johnson said Thursday he thought the measure would be legally defensible. He added that the resolution would still require approval of the city council and mayor before it became law. He said he hoped that after the resolution was approved, the mayor and city council would address the technicality he raised.