Non-Citizens Voting? Yes, Say Massachusetts Immigrant Advocates

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Non-citizens should be able to vote in local elections in Massachusetts because they are already participating in civic life and paying taxes, advocates of a bill before the state legislature say.

One of the sponsors, state Representative Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge), linked allowing non-citizens to vote to the state legislature’s recent steps to expand mail-in voting and, in his words, “to fully modernize the election process.”

“And I think taking the steps proposed by this bill would really give us a chance to take another step toward dismantling the racist legacy of stripping non-citizens of their right to participate even on the municipal level,” Connolly said Wednesday during a hearing before a legislative committee.

The proposed legislation applies only to non-citizens in the country legally, not to illegal immigrants.

Roberto Jimenez Rivera, a member of the school committee in Chelsea, a poor city of about 39,000 north of Boston with nearly half the population immigrants, called the bill “a small ask.”

“We’re not asking you to enfranchise all non-citizens, as much as I would like that,” Rivera said.

The measure (Massachusetts House Bill 770 and Massachusetts Senate Bill 465) would allow non-citizens to vote in local elections for school committee, board of selectmen, city council, and local referendums, but not in state or federal elections. A similar measure (Massachusetts House Bill 828) is slightly less sweeping and would require that a non-citizen sign a declaration that he “intends in good faith to become a U.S. citizen and intends to begin that process, if eligible.”

“This would really expand democracy, give more of a voice to people that are on a path to becoming a citizen,” said state Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), a sponsor of one of the bills.

One advocate linked allowing non-citizens to vote with the coronavirus pandemic, which advocates say hit immigrants harder than most U.S. citizens.

“Giving non-citizen residents the right to vote locally will improve community health, and allow the community to best respond to the health and human-right needs of its residents. Restricting which residents deserve representation or deserve being listened to is embedded in our country’s roots of racism, white supremacy culture, and xenophobia,” said Riley Shaffer, representing La Colaborativa, of Chelsea, which seeks to assist immigrants.

Federal law prohibits non-citizens from voting in federal elections, such as for president or Congress. States can permit non-citizens to vote in state or local elections.

Massachusetts hasn’t done so in more than 200 years.

The original version of the Massachusetts Constitution approved in 1780 limited voting to people who were “inhabitants” but did not explicitly require that they be citizens. Yet in 1811, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared that “the authority given to inhabitants and residents, to vote, is restrained to such inhabitants and residents, as are citizens.”

In 1821, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution (Article III) explicitly restricting voting to citizens. In 1859, during an anti-immigrant phase in the state, voters approved an amendment (Article XXIII) significantly altering Article III — that prohibited even naturalized foreigners from voting for an additional two years after attaining citizenship. Voters repealed that amendment four years later, in 1863, as Irish immigrants were dying in large numbers fighting for the Union during the Civil War.

(The dates of the amendments to the state constitution are included in a 1910 scholarly article by Edward M. Hartwell called “Referenda in Massachusetts and Boston,” in Publications of the American Statistical Association.)

Thus, while it has been illegal in Massachusetts for non-citizens to vote since at least 1811, and such a prohibition was part of the state constitution between 1821 and 1863, the prohibition is no longer in the state constitution. That enables the state legislature to allow non-citizens to vote in Massachusetts by enacting a statute. (A statewide referendum could also legalize it.)

Other states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote during the 19th and early 20th centuries. States tended to restrict voting to citizens in the years after the War of 1812, but many tended to be more open to allowing non-citizens to vote in the years after the Civil War, according to a 1993 law review article (“Legal Aliens, Local Citizens:  The Historical, Constitutional, and Theoretical Meanings of Alien Suffrage,” by Jamin B. Raskin, American University Washington College of Law).

As immigration skyrocketed during the late 1800s and early 1900s, states took a dimmer view of the practice. The last state to outlaw it during that period was Arkansas, in 1926.

In the modern era, non-citizens are allowed to vote in local elections in San Francisco, California; several communities in Maryland; and in the western Pacific territories of American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

As for Massachusetts, no one argued against the bill during a hearing before the Joint Committee on Election Laws of the state Legislature on Wednesday, June 23.

But Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which calls for lessening immigration but offering those admitted “a warmer welcome,” criticized the bill when contacted by New Boston Post.

“This is the worst possible legislation at a time of a mass migration crisis on the southwest border with record breaking numbers of illegal entrants coinciding with a time when many Americans have lost confidence in our election system,” Vaughan said in an email message.

Home-rule petitions seeking to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections have been approved during the past couple of decades in left-leaning Brookline, Newton, Somerville, Wayland, and Amherst.

Public officials in the western Massachusetts city of Northampton are hoping to allow non-citizens to vote in the city election in November 2021. (Massachusetts House Bill 832 would allow Northampton to do so.)

But each petition requires approval from the state legislature, which so far hasn’t given it.

The Joint Committee on Election Laws is accepting written testimony on the non-citizens-voting bills until 3 p.m. Friday, June 25. It can be sent by email to [email protected] and [email protected].