Washingtonians love to complain about taxation without representation. But for me and my fellow noncitizens, it is a fact of political life that we submit to unquestioningly year after year, primary after primary, presidential election after presidential election. Nearly 15 million people living legally in the United States, most of whom contribute as much as any natural-born American to this country’s civic, cultural and economic life, don’t have a say in matters of politics and policy because we — resident foreign nationals, or “aliens” as we are sometimes called — cannot vote.
Considering the Supreme Court’s recent decision undermining voting rights, and Republicans’ efforts to suppress, redistrict and manipulate their way to electoral security, it’s time for Democrats to radically expand the electorate. Proposing federal legislation to give millions of young people and essential workers a clear road to citizenship is a good start. But there’s another measure that lawmakers both in Washington and state capitals should put in place: lifting voting restrictions on legal residents who aren’t citizens — people with green cards, people here on work visas, and those who arrived in the country as children and are still waiting for permanent papers.
Expanding the franchise in this way would give American democracy new life, restore immigrants’ trust in government and send a powerful message of inclusion to the rest of the world.
It’s easy to assume that restricting the franchise to citizens is an age-old, nonnegotiable fact. But it’s actually a relatively recent convention and a political choice. Early in the United States’ history, voting was a function not of national citizenship but of gender, race and class. As a result, white male landowners of all nationalities were encouraged to play an active role in shaping American democracy, while women and poor, Indigenous and enslaved people could not. That wholesale discrimination is unquestionably worse than excluding resident foreigners from the polls, but the point is that history shows how readily voting laws can be altered — and that restrictive ones tend not to age well.
Another misconception is that citizen voting rights have always been the prerogative of the federal government. In fact, states have largely decided who had a say in local, state and national elections. Arkansas was the last state to eliminate noncitizen voting in 1926, and it wasn’t until 1996 that Congress doubled down with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made voting in federal elections while foreign — already not permitted because of state-level rules — a criminal, and deportable, offense. (This means that congressional Democrats working on immigration and election reform can reverse the 1996 sanctions the same way they voted them in.)
One point I’ve frequently made over the years is that there is very little about the revival of socialism in this nation that is truly radical. Almost all of it is just left-leaning New Deal liberalism, with many policies that even 70s liberals such as Ed Muskie and Ted Kennedy could easily get behind. The one genuinely radical idea becoming mainstream on the left is police abolition. Non-citizen voting is exactly the kind of genuinely radical idea we should get behind. First, it makes sense, at least if you’ve lived in the nation for, say, 3 years or something. Obviously you don’t want people flying in just to vote, but there are millions of people living here and paying taxes without a say in their government. Second, the really important thing to note is that this was actually legal in many states for significant portions of American history, even if not in the last century. Originialism baby!
And I am quite serious here. This is not only a great idea, but a necessary one. Liberals have to stop apologizing for immigration. Openly embrace it. It’s not as if Fox News isn’t going to accuse any Democrat of letting in all the Mexican Taliban terrorists anyway. Non-citizen voting is the right thing to do.