This paper uses New York City’s consideration of an amendment to its charter that would extend voting rights to noncitizens in municipal elections as a case study in immigrant integration and local governance. It argues that New York City’s biggest challenge in moving this issue forward is dealing successfully with two related questions: 1) why the New York City Council should be able to decide who “the People” are without approval from the state government in Albany and 2) whether it should attempt to enact the measure without a referendum.
The analysis first examines the role of local government in regulating the lives of immigrants, contrasting enforcement-oriented strategies with those that are more integration-oriented. It then spotlights federal law obstacles to noncitizen suffrage, concluding that while neither federal criminal nor immigration law prevents state or local governments from extending the franchise to noncitizens in state or local matters, federal law imposes impediments that may deter some noncitizens from registering or that could carry serious immigration consequences for those who vote in violation of federal law. The article then focuses on state law obstacles, including New York’s constitution, its state election law and its home rule provisions. It contrasts other recent experiences with noncitizen suffrage around the country, looking at both municipal and school board elections. Finally, it provides some thoughts on best practices in moving forward the issue of noncitizen suffrage in New York City and other locales. New York law is ambiguous enough that good arguments can be made for why neither Albany’s approval nor a city-wide referendum is required. However, given New York City’s historic relationship with Albany and the state legislature’s power to preempt local law on election matters, if the city council attempts to expand the franchise to noncitizen voters without a referendum or comparable measure, it could trigger preemptive action in Albany or lengthy, divisive, and costly battles in the courts.