In 2022, Republican Staten Island judge Ralph Porzio sided with a Republican Party lawsuit against the New York City Department of Elections, disqualifying almost 1 million city residents from registering to vote in 2023.
Had it not been for the lawsuit and Porzio’s decision, Tuesday’s Nov. 7, 2023 New York City municipal elections would have been the first general election non-citizens with work authorization would have been eligible to vote under a local law passed by City Council in 2021 and adopted into law.
Diana Park, 24, a Korean American who moved to New York City at the age of one, won’t be able to vote tomorrow and participate in the democracy that governs her life. “I feel minimized and I feel dehumanized,” Park told The Indy. “This country doesn’t recognize that my voice matters, it’s really disheartening.”
Decades of agitation by immigrant-rights groups aimed to resuscitate the once-common practice of non-citizen suffrage that was once common practice in New York and across the country. Between 1776 and 1804, property owning male non-citizens were allowed to vote across the state (to encourage colonization). More recently, New York City allowed for non-citizen voting in school board elections between 1968 and 2003. Between 1776 and 1926, non-citizens were allowed to vote in 40 states and territories, at different periods of time.
Today, over a dozen municipalities allow for some form of non-citizen voting. This is about “restoring a right that has been available,” says Taina Wagnac, Senior Manager of State & Local Policy of New York Immigrant Coalition. “These are doctors, nurses, journalists, business owners, tax payers, teachers, people who are making contributions to their city and communities. They should be able to choose their elected representatives.”
Right-wing groups have mobilized against the movement. Since 2016, xenophobic groups have quietly amended multiple state constitutions to preemptively ban non-citizen suffrage from spreading and taken to the courts to attack non-citizen voting measures. In September, a San Francisco measure allowing immigrant parents to vote in school board elections survived a legal challenge, clearing “the path for other California municipalities to advance immigrant voting in their cities.”
In passing Intro 1867, New York became the largest modern city to recognize the political rights of non-citizens, extending the right to vote in local elections to people with permanent residency or work authorization.
After the law passed, there was some concern about the competence of the New York City Department of Elections in implementing the law, and ensuring the new voters only vote in local elections but not state and federal elections. San Francisco State University professor Ron Hayduk, a non-citizen suffrage advocate and former Coordinator for the New York City Voter Assistance Commission in the 1990s, argues that “if there is the political will, there is the technological and practical way.”
“As the NYC Board has had to do before (and boards across the country), when new mandates came — from the Americans for Disabilities Act in 1990 and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and language access and ranked choice voting more recently — election officials have had to make adjustments to technology and practices and retrain personnel,” says Hayduk, who authored Gatekeepers to the Franchise: Shaping Election Administration in New York. “Why not for immigrant voters too?”
But a lawsuit by the New York Republican State Committee and Republican National Committee halted the law’s implementation altogether. In their lawsuit against the Department of Elections, the City Council and the Office of the Mayor, the Republican committees argued, among other things, that the power of existing voters would be diluted and that political campaigns would be forced to adapt.
Judge Porzio, who also overturned the city’s COVID-19 public health vaccine mandate for public workers, agreed with the zero-sum logic. “The weight of the citizens’ vote will be diluted by municipal [non-citizen] voters and candidates and political parties alike will need to reconfigure their campaigns,” he wrote in his June 2022 decision.
At the time, Murad Awawdeh, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said the decision “by this lower court in Staten Island comes as no surprise to us, because the Republican opponents to the law specifically placed their lawsuit in a court they knew would be favorable to them.”
The City of New York appealed the decision in July 2022 and oral arguments were heard this summer. “Now we’re just waiting on the final decision,” said Wagnac.
In the meantime, elections proceed while some 20 million non-citizens of voting age are denied participation in the nation’s democracy.