Opinion Columns & Blogs

Let’s give our non-citizen neighbors the right to vote in California

This Oct. 29, 2015 photo shows election signs in a Chinatown window supporting affordable housing in the Mission District and restrictions on short-term rentals in San Francisco. The city in 2016 became one of the few in the United States that allows non-citizens to vote in specified local elections.
This Oct. 29, 2015 photo shows election signs in a Chinatown window supporting affordable housing in the Mission District and restrictions on short-term rentals in San Francisco. The city in 2016 became one of the few in the United States that allows non-citizens to vote in specified local elections. AP file

President Trump claims California allowed millions of non-citizens to vote in the 2016 elections. This allegation, while totally bogus, has put California on the defensive as Trump uses the lie to justify a new federal commission devoted to making it harder for all Americans to vote.

Californians should go on offense – by embracing Trump’s ugly lie and transforming it into a beautiful civic truth. Let’s make our state more democratic – by guaranteeing California’s non-citizens the right to vote in local and state elections.

Sounds radical, right? It’s not. In this country, there is no constitutional prohibition against non-citizens voting; states decide who gets to vote. For most of American history, voting by non-citizens was commonplace. Given Trump’s threats both to immigrants and democracy, Californians should seize this moment to give the franchise back to non-citizens.

California is home to about five million adults (that’s one in six California adults) who can’t vote because they’re not citizens. This huge disenfranchised cohort is an affront to American principles.

Taxation without representation? These non-citizens pay taxes, but they are not represented. Consent of the governed? Non-citizens must follow our laws –but they can’t vote to consent. Home of the brave? Non-citizens serve in the military but can’t vote for the government that sends them to war. Family values? Non-citizens can’t vote even though they are parents and legal representatives to millions of U.S. citizens.

We Californians tolerate this apartheid, even though the lesser status of non-citizens – especially the 2 million-plus undocumented Californians – makes them more vulnerable to abuse and removal from the country they’ve helped build. To its credit, California has taken steps on behalf of non-citizens, who now enjoy in-state tuition to our public universities, driver’s licenses, the ability to practice the law, and – if they are children – state-funded health care.

But none of this is enough. All Californians won’t be equal until all have that democratic weapon of self-defense: the vote. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”

Americans tell themselves that our country’s story is about extending the franchise over time: African Americans, women, 18-year-olds. But non-citizens had the vote, and lost it.

From the founding through the 20th century, non-citizens voted in dozens of states. The vote was a lure for settlers and part of the assimilation process. What better way to educate yourself in civic traditions than by voting? But the coming of the First World War produced an anti-immigrant backlash. By 1926, every state had banned non-citizen voting.

Such voting continues today in limited local form. Some Maryland cities, New York, Chicago, and (as of 2016) San Francisco, allow non-citizens to vote in certain local elections. And as global migration surged in recent decades, two dozen countries established voting rights for non-citizens.

Even here, U.S. Supreme Court precedent is clear: States can let non-citizens vote if they choose. While Congress explicitly outlawed non-citizen voting in federal elections, the door remains open for local and state elections.

California should walk through that door.

Non-citizen voting not only would express our commitment to universal suffrage and to providing vulnerable people the power to defend themselves. It also would make the voting population, now older and whiter than the state, more representative.

By the same token, the arguments against enfranchising non-citizens make little sense. Non-citizens don’t constitute some distinct or isolated group that doesn’t understand the rest of us. They are a diverse array of people by origin, class, and education. Many have spent decades here.

Establishing non-citizen voting might require a new governor, as Jerry Brown has opposed the idea. And in our era of mass deportation, undocumented Californians might be reluctant to register.

But that shouldn’t stop us from enfranchising millions of non-citizen Californians who have spent at least five years here.

This means escalating our war with the federal government. But escalation is inevitable. Trump will lie and attack California whether we let non-citizens vote or not. So why not just do the right thing?

California’s position should be clear: Universal suffrage means universal suffrage. And if America is going to call itself a democracy, the country ought to have one state that is an actual democracy.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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