Louisiana voters recently approved a constitutional amendment barring anyone who is not a US citizen from participating in elections, becoming the eighth state to push back against the growing number of progressive cities deciding to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.
While noncitizens are prohibited from voting in federal elections and no states allow noncitizens to vote for statewide office, ambiguous language in constitutions has allowed localities to pass statutes legalizing noncitizen voting in local or school board elections. A short but expanding list of cities include two cities in Vermont, almost a dozen in Maryland, and San Francisco.
Other cities are trying to join that list, including Boston and Washington DC, where the latter city’s council in October passed legislation allowing noncitizens who have lived in the city for at least 30 days to vote in local elections. New York City’s council also passed a measure in December to allow close to 900,000 green card holders and those with work authorization to vote in local elections, but a state trial court struck it down in June, finding it violated the state constitution. The ruling is currently being appealed.
The potential for major cities like DC and New York to expand their electorates prompted backlash from Republican lawmakers.
“This vote sends a clear message that the radical election policies of places like San Francisco, New York City and Washington, DC have no place in Louisiana,” Kyle Ardoin, the Republican secretary of state, said in a statement after the passage of the constitutional amendment, which he said will “ensure the continued integrity of Louisiana’s elections”.
Louisiana law already prohibits anyone who is “not a citizen of the state” from voting, so voting rights advocates say the new amendment is an effort by Republicans in the state to limit voting based on false allegations that noncitizens are committing voter fraud by participating in elections.
Louisiana’s amendment made it on to the 10 December ballot after it was passed by both chambers of the state legislature. Over 73% of Louisiana voters approved it, making Louisiana the latest in a series of states moving to explicitly write bans into their constitutions.
Before 2020, just Arizona and North Dakota specifically prohibited noncitizens from voting in local and state elections, but voters in Alabama, Colorado and Florida all approved constitutional amendments in 2020 and Ohio approved one in November.
Ohio’s amendment came after one town in the state, Yellow Springs, passed an initiative in 2019 to allow noncitizens to vote, giving voting rights in local elections to just a few dozen people in the small town. A few years later in 2022, Republican lawmakers proposed what would eventually become the constitutional amendment banning the practice and revoking the right from noncitizens in Yellow Springs.
Fulvia Vargas-De Leon, senior counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a New York-based immigrant rights group, said the movement for ballot amendments is just one way that some lawmakers are trying to restrict voting rights.
“It is a response to the expansion of the right to vote, and our concern is that since 2020, we’ve seen such attacks on the right to vote,” she said, adding that the pushback was coming because of an anti-immigrant sentiment “but also a larger effort to try to ban who has access to the ballot”.
The United States allowed noncitizens to vote for much of its early history. From the founding of the country through 1926, noncitizens could vote in local, state and federal elections. But anti-immigrant sentiment led to lawmakers in most states to push for an end to the practice.
“Resurgent nativism, wartime xenophobia, and corruption concerns pushed lawmakers to curtail noncitizen voting, and citizenship became a voting prerequisite in every state by 1926,” William & Mary professor Alan H Kennedy wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Policy History this year.
In 1996, Congress passed a law prohibiting noncitizens from voting in federal elections, making illegal voting punishable by fines, imprisonment and deportation.
But on the local level, the subject has re-emerged as a topic for debate in recent decades, as the populations of permanent noncitizen immigrants has grown in many cities.
Advocates for noncitizen voting argue that documented immigrants pay taxes and contribute to their local communities and should have their voices heard when it comes to local policy.
“We should have a representative democracy, where everyone who is part of the fabric of the community, who is involved, who pays taxes, should have a say in it,” said Vargas-De Leon, whose group intervened in the New York litigation and has filed the appeal.
But conservative groups say that allowing noncitizens to vote dilutes the votes of citizens. Republican strategist Christopher Arps started the Missouri-based Americans for Citizen Voting to help states amend their constitutions to explicitly say that only US citizens can vote. He said that people who want to vote should “at least have some skin in the game” by completing the citizenship process.
“We’ve been hearing for the past five, six years about foreign interference, Russia and other countries,” he said. “Well to me, this is a type of foreign interference in our elections.”
It would also be a “bureaucratic nightmare”, he said, for states to have to maintain two separate voter rolls for federal and local elections, and could lead to illegal voting if noncitizens accidentally vote in a federal election.
Though noncitizen voting still has not been signed into law in DC, Republicans in Congress have already introduced legislation to block it. One bill, introduced by the Texas senator Ted Cruz last month, would bar DC from using federal funds to facilitate noncitizen voting.
“Allowing noncitizens and illegal immigrants to vote in our elections opens our country up to foreign influence, and allows those who are openly violating US law or even working for hostile foreign governments to take advantage and direct our resources against our will,” Cruz said in a statement.
But Vargas-De Leon pointed to the benefits of expanding the electorate to include the country’s 12.9 million legal permanent residents and other documented immigrants.
“All we’re trying to do here is ensure that everyone has a say in our government,” she said.