Should Green Card Holders be Granted Voting Rights?

Like many who live in the District of Columbia, David Nolan and Helen Searls are a busy professional couple who stay active in their child’s school and maintain memberships in several local political organizations. They have been taxpaying residents of Washington D.C. for many years, and relish being a part of the unique culture and diversity of our nation’s capital. But one experience that would truly tie them to public life in D.C. eludes them – the right to vote. As lawful permanent residents (i.e. ‘green card’ holders), Nolan and Searls cannot vote at any level, be it local, state, or federal. “It’s frustrating at election time to have no say in what’s happening,” says the British-born Searls to The Washington Post. A bill that was introduced in the D.C. council last month that would allow green card holders to vote locally may change that. [See D.C., Other Cities Debate Whether Legal Immigrants Should Have Voting Rights, by Pamela Constable, The Washington Post, 09.Feb.2015. Also see D.C. Lawmakers Float Bill to Allow Voting Without U.S. Citizenship, by Andrea Noble, The Washington Times, 20.Jan.2015.]

While proponents of the bill are not advocating for immigrants to be allowed to vote in presidential elections, which is prohibited under federal law, they assert that noncitizens voting at the local level was accepted and even encouraged from the birth of the Constitution through the mid 1920’s, when newly established regions needed to entice people to populate them. Advocates maintain that giving the nation’s 12 million lawful permanent residents the chance to play a political part in their local respective communities is an important symbolic gesture of welcome, and will also introduce them to the unique U.S. democratic process. D.C. Councilman David Grosso, who introduced the bill, puts it simply in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “This is the right thing to do.” However, Grosso goes on to say that “a lot of people still have a misguided understanding of what it’s about.”

Grosso and other supporters of enfranchisement for lawful permanent residents lament that fear of immigrants is a main roadblock to passing legislation allowing them to vote at the local level. “It’s hard to sell,” says David Anderson, a coalition coordinator who is part of an effort to get legislation passed in New York. “Most voters don’t understand what legal immigrants are, and a lot of immigrant groups are focused on issues like deportation and wages. Sadly, voting is just not a priority.” Opponents of the legislation maintain that voting at any level should be a right granted only to U.S. citizens, and point out that a green card holder can apply to become a citizen after a three- or five-year waiting period. They also assert that granting voting rights to noncitizens could have potentially dangerous consequences, as foreign-born residents may harbor loyalties to their native countries and lack sufficient knowledge of American civics and history. But, the few cities that have allowed immigrants to vote in local elections are quick to assert that those fears seem unfounded. Officials in Takoma Park, MD, which has allowed lawful permanent residents to vote in the community since 1991, say that few immigrants have turned out to vote in any local election, and note that voter turnout for local elections is low for citizens as well.

While D.C. Councilman David Grosso is not optimistic that his bill will pass, citing previous attempts that were met with a “huge backlash,” voting rights for noncitizens is becoming an expanding movement in other parts of the nation. Along with Takoma Park, four other towns in Maryland have extended local voting rights to green card holders, and so has Chicago. Strong movements for legislation are under way in New York, NY, Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI. Proponents say that efforts allowing foreign-born residents to vote are long overdue and will only intensify as more immigrants settle in the United States to live and work. And many immigrants themselves point out that, as members of society who pay taxes and who can serve in the armed forces, they have earned the right to cast a vote in their respective communities. As Maria Carpio, a retired office worker from El Salvador and lawful permanent resident since 1987, told The Washington Post, “I have worked hard here all my life. I should have the right to express my opinion.”


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