What does the European Union have in common with Takoma Park?
Both allow noncitizen voting in local elections. Noncitizens in both places live with the understanding that they are part of their communities and that political participation is important.
Now the District is coming to terms with what the European Union and Takoma Park already know: Immigrants who work, pay taxes, send their children to school and otherwise participate in local issues should have a say in how their taxes are spent. Mayor Anthony Williams says he is committed to “expanding the franchise” in response to a report on Latinos in the District [Metro, Oct. 1].
Despite many people’s belief, the Constitution does not have a citizenship requirement for voting. Decisions about who votes are up to state and local jurisdictions. Until the late 1920s, noncitizens voted in nearly half the states. A wave of anti-immigrant sentiment after World War I put an end to that.
The strongest argument against allowing noncitizens to vote is that as a nation we expect immigrants to naturalize; therefore, it isn’t necessary to give them voting rights before they make a commitment to our country. But with a five-year residency requirement and backlogs in processing naturalization applications, many immigrants have long waits to become citizens.
The District is home to nearly 75,000 immigrants, half of whom come from Latin America. Some are here temporarily, some long-term. About a third have become citizens. Including noncitizens in local elections is not about Latin Americans, but about letting the 13 percent of residents who are excluded from the democratic process have a say in the way we all live.
Voting should be open to all immigrants who hold a green card, the symbol of their commitment to permanent residency. If the District’s voting plan is patterned on other existing programs, foreign nationals who have several years of U.S. residency and who possess another type of visa, such as “temporary protected status,” also would be eligible to vote. These models follow the democratic principle that all people should have equal representation.
These kinds of measures are not easily passed. But wouldn’t it be great if the people of the capital led the way on this issue? After all, they know a bit about lack of representation, don’t they?