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DC Leaders Should Focus on Voting Rights — But Not Just at the Federal Level

Jan 31, 2022 | Immigration, Politics

Walking Washington’s streets, it’s hard to go far without seeing a yard sign or bumper sticker advocating for statehood. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as Democrats in the U.S. Senate prepared for an ill-fated attempt to advance federal voting rights legislation, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser noted that if the District were granted statehood and the two senators that accompany it, the voting rights legislation likely would pass. Meanwhile, D.C. has yet to grant voting rights to many in our own community. 

Although at least 15 cities and localities across the country, including nine in neighboring Maryland, allow non-citizens to vote in local elections, green card holders — who are lawful permanent residents of the city — don’t have a say in D.C. local elections. While it’s unclear exactly how many D.C. residents are green card holders, 10% of the city’s population is foreign-born, and as of 2018, immigrants accounted for 17% of the D.C. labor force. 

Many of those immigrants, and many green card holders across the country, have been lawful residents for a significant time. As of 2018, almost 20% of the immigrants living in D.C. were eligible for naturalization. Several factors, including a $725 fee and language barriers, deter some from applying for citizenship. Among those who have applied, a steady backlog of up to 1 million cases at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has slowed the naturalization process. The pandemic exacerbated those issues when naturalization ceremonies were put on hold. 

We should grant these tax-paying neighbors a voice in the local decisions that directly affect their and their families’ day-to-day lives. Many green card holders have chosen to make the District their permanent home. They utilize and pay for the same local services that citizens do and should have a say in choosing the leaders who oversee their public schools, transportation, zoning, policing, and more. 

Many on the D.C. Council agree. Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau of Ward 1 recently introduced the Local Resident Voting Rights Act of 2021, which would allow green card holders to vote in local elections. Six of the 13 councilmembers co-introduced the bill, signaling strong support across the council. “Every day, elected officials are making decisions about affordable housing, education, human services, and more,” Nadeau said. “People who have made their permanent homes here should have a hand in who represents them in government.”

Some may oppose non-citizen voting rights on legal, anti-immigrant, or even racist grounds, while other critics point to challenges with election administration. Indeed, allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections would require creating a separate voter roll and non-citizen ballot to ensure non-citizens didn’t vote in federal elections. Multiple city administrators in Maryland, however, have maintained local-only voter rolls without problems. “It’s a point of pride here,” noted Jessie Carpenter, the city clerk for Takoma Park, Maryland, where non-citizens have voted in local elections since 1993. Currently, about 300 of the city’s 11,000 voters are registered to vote in local elections only. 

New York City’s law, which is similar in structure to the one proposed by Councilmember Nadeau, will have a larger impact. About 800,000 legal permanent residents and authorized workers will now be able to vote for local offices, including the mayor, City Council, and borough presidents. The bill passed the New York City Council by a 33-14 margin and has the support of the new mayor Eric Adams. Still, given D.C.’s prominent position in the political world and the heated national discourse around both voting rights and immigration, leaders should be prepared to address some anti-immigrant pushback from the right if the bill passes. That likely short-lived outrage is a small price to pay in return for a long-term commitment to our non-citizen neighbors.

If the D.C.Council and Mayor Bowser need a final reason to prioritize Councilmember Nadeau’s bill, perhaps they will see it in those near-ubiquitous statehood bumper stickers and yard signs. Because D.C. exists under federal oversight, Congress has the power to “disapprove” of any new D.C. law, which could become a final hurdle if the Local Resident Voting Rights Act is not passed before Republicans likely regain control of Congress after the 2022 midterms. And while Mayor Bowser was right to point out that D.C.’s citizens deserve two senators representing their voices in the federal voting rights discussion, the city should live up to those values by giving green card holders voices in our own local elections.

Featured Image by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash.

  • Chris Fields is a first-year Master of Public Administration student concentrating in policy analysis. He is originally from Greensboro, North Carolina, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in journalism and mass communication. After spending the previous eight years working in social media, he is looking forward to expanding his writing beyond 280 characters.

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