David Nolan and Helen Searls are a professional couple in the District, active in their children’s school and local civic associations. As taxpayers and longtime residents, they feel they have a duty to be involved in public life. But as legal immigrants who have not become U.S. citizens, they have no right to vote — even in local elections. “It’s frustrating at election time to have no say in what’s happening,” said the British-born Searls, 54, who works at a media company. “Washington has people from all over the world. If they are engaged and participating in public issues, it benefits the city.” Searls and Nolan are among 54,000 immigrants in the District — and about 12 million nationwide — who have been granted green cards that allow them to remain in the United States permanently. Most are sponsored by relatives or employers. They pay taxes and serve in the armed forces. Yet in all but a handful of localities, they have no voting rights. Last month, for the third time in a decade, a bill was introduced in the D.C. Council to allow legal immigrants to vote locally. The measure has little chance of passage, but it is illustrative of a growing movement to expand local voting rights to noncitizens that has spawned similar proposals in several dozen communities across the country.
Most immigrant groups focus on promoting citizenship as the path to political influence, and the effort to enfranchise noncitizens remains controversial. It has succeeded in only a handful of places, including Chicago and Takoma Park, Md., but has been gaining traction recently in others, including New York City and Burlington, Vt., as the population of settled legal immigrants grows.
Proponents point out that noncitizen voting was the norm early in American history, when new regions needed people to populate them. It was abandoned only after spates of anti-foreign sentiment in the 1860s and 1920s. Proponents have not urged that immigrants be allowed to vote for president, which is against federal law; they want them to be permitted a political role in their communities.
But opponents assert that the right to vote at any level is a defining quality of citizenship. They say it should not be easily granted to the foreign-born, who might have divided loyalties and insufficient knowledge of American democracy. And they point out that any legal permanent resident can apply to become a U.S. citizen with full voting rights after a five-year wait.