New York City gives noncitizens right to vote in local elections

It has the potential to dramatically change the city’s electorate.

December 9, 2021, 6:45 PM

For Julieta Larsen, elections are bittersweet.

Hailing from Argentina, Larsen moved to New York City after meeting her husband, a firefighter with the FDNY. Now, seven years and two children later, she works as a community engagement coordinator at Queens Community House, a multi-service settlement home.

Larsen says she's a politics lover, devoting her days to advocating for local legislation and setting up election and voter information sessions.

But come election season, there's always one question she asks but never likes to answer: "Have you voted yet?"

Though living in New York City for almost a decade and devoting her days to political organizing, Larsen is still a green card holder, making her ineligible to vote despite multiple attempts at a pathway toward citizenship.

"It's kind of funny, but not funny because I talk to people about the importance of voting. Yet, I cannot vote," Larsen told ABC News.

It's a nagging feeling for someone so entrenched in the political process. But change is on the horizon.

On Thursday, the New York City Council passed by a a 33-14 margin legislation called Our City, Our Vote, that will allow permanent New York City residents and those with work permits to participate in municipal elections.

PHOTO: In this July 26, 2021, file photo, a protester hold a sign during a rally in New York.
In this July 26, 2021, file photo, a protester hold a sign during a rally in New York.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE

New York City's local elections historically have attracted low voter turnout. A record-low 23% of New Yorkers voted in this year's mayoral election. This bill has the potential to dramatically change the city's electorate by giving more than 800,000 noncitizens the right to vote.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would not veto the legislation despite reservations about the bill. Mayor-elect Eric Adams championed the legislation on the campaign trail and continues to voice his support.

Now it us up to the New York City Board of Elections to figure out exactly how the law will be implemented when it takes effect in 2023 during the city's next local election.

For Larsen and many other immigrants who work and pay state and federal taxes, the legislation presents the opportunity to finally have a say in who represents them.

"I deserve the right to vote for the person that I think would actually represent my interests and do something about those specific issues I care about," Larsen said.

It's not a done deal yet, though. Some GOP councilmembers and attorneys in the city are already promising legal action. Councilman David Carr, a vocal critic of the legislation, believes if the bill passes as expected, a New York state court will overturn it.

"I believe fundamentally that the right to vote is part of being a citizen...And it should be exclusive to them," Carr told ABC News.

"You have an issue with the naturalization process or an issue with the way this country handles immigration more generally, your fight's in Washington, not City Hall," he added. "We don't get to have 50 immigration laws these days or thousands of different standards because of all the different municipalities that make up this country."

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also indicated possible legal action in a statement following the vote.

"Allowing our elections to be decided by foreign citizens is unacceptable, and the RNC is looking closely at our legal options as we continue our fight to protect your ballot," it said.

This type of legislation isn't new to the United States. It's not even unique to New York City. For over 30 years, noncitizens voted in New York City school board elections before they became mayor-appointed positions in 2009. San Francisco has afforded noncitizens the right to vote in school board elections since 2016. And cities in Maryland and Vermont have allowed noncitizens to vote in local elections since 2017 and 2021, respectively.

New York City, however, is largest municipality to date to pass this type of legislation. It comes at a time when an unprecedented number of states are taking up bills that will make it harder for Americans to vote.

"I think it sends a strong signal that the essence of democracy is full participation," Elizabeth OuYang, a civil rights attorney in New York City, told ABC News. "You can't say noncitizens should not have certain basic rights and then make citizenship very difficult to obtain. And so we need to be consistent in making sure that the franchise and citizenship is accessible."

OuYang cites historical precedent for New York City's proposed legislation.

"This notion of suffrage being dependent upon citizenship is misinformed" she said. "In the founding of our country, [voting] was not based on citizenship as much as it was based on wealth and gender…there's nothing in New York State Constitution or New York City charter that bars non-immigrant, lawful permanent residents from voting in municipal elections."

Only time will tell if the bill holds against legal tests, but immigrants like Julieta are celebrating the moment for what it is.

"New York City is home…I definitely consider myself lucky and privileged to live in a community that works on this legislation," Larsen said. "This is huge. I am very lucky to be here. I'm very lucky that my children are gonna grow up in such a progressive community and society."

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