To say that a lot has occurred recently would be an understatement. A conspiracy-theory-inflamed mob ransacking the center of American democracy, the Capitol; 147 Congressional Republicans officially objecting to the result of a free and fair election; former President Trump being banned on social media; and the swearing in of President Biden — all the while the coronavirus rages across the country and the economy hangs on by a thread. However, another issue that has been neglected for far too long but is not on the public or policy agenda is noncitizen voting. Specifically the injustice that adult non-citizen residents of the United States cannot vote in state and federal elections. 

According to Pew Research, in 2017, there were an estimated 25 million noncitizens in the United States. This includes 12.3 million permanent residents (“legal immigrants” working and living in the United States), 2.2 million temporary residents (work visas, student visas, etc) and 10.5 million undocumented residents (“illegal immigrants”). Of course, not all of these people are adults. 

None of the 50 states nor the District of Columbia permit noncitizens to vote in federal or state elections. This is immoral. 

I believe that all permanent residents (sorry, temporary residents) should be allowed to vote in state and federal elections because barring them to do so undermines the core mission of democracy itself. 

The idea of democracy is that residents of a territory vote to decide which course of action their representative government will pursue. The laws that the government passes affect noncitizens as much as they affect citizens, so noncitizens should have the same amount of say. The 12.3 million legal permanent residents pay state, local and federal taxes that fund their education, infrastructure, law enforcement, national defense and health while also affecting business and residential regulations. 

Even undocumented residents pay some taxes and obviously the actions of government affect them as much as anyone else. 

Residents who can prove residency for at least three years should be able to vote in state and federal elections. 

How can we consider ourselves to be the best democracy on Earth if we disenfranchise millions of our residents whose only fault is that they weren’t born in the U.S. or that they haven’t lived in the U.S. for “enough” time? 

I expect this idea to face much opposition so I’m going to refute what I anticipate many will say in response to this idea.

  1. People not born in the United States should have to take a citizenship test proving their knowledge of American history. 

I agree with that, so much so that native born American citizens should take the test too. We’ve all seen the Jimmy Kimmel videos of Americans who don’t know basic geography, history and civics. We need to reform education as a whole to produce more informed citizens. Every adult regardless of immigration status can take this test as a part of registering to vote. There should not be a double standard for people born inside the U.S., who don’t have to take the test, versus those born outside the U.S., who do. Discrimination on the basis of national origin is wrong. 

  1. Offering voting for noncitizens will discourage immigrants from pursuing citizenship.

Maybe some, but the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website offers many other valid reasons to want to become an official “citizen” besides voting: running for elected office, gaining a U.S. Passport, being able to apply for federal jobs, protecting yourself against deportation, becoming eligible for federal grants and scholarships, becoming eligible for some government benefits exclusive to citizens and bringing family over. I personally believe we should make all permanent residents citizens, thereby lifting restrictions on current noncitizens, and making this concern irrelevant. If every permanent resident is recognized by the government, then there is no longer any distinction between citizen and non-citizen residents. 

  1. Offering voting for noncitizens would make more immigrants come to the U.S., which will put a strain on our economy. 

I agree that we can’t have people coming to the United States who haven’t undergone a background check. Let’s bolster our government’s capacity to vet people and secure our borders. I agree this is a double standard against foreign born people since native born Americans don’t have to pass a background check to become citizens. It’s a birthright. But let’s try to limit as much as we can entry to those who seek to do harm to the country and its residents. 

Now, to the question of immigration I say this. First, enfranchising noncitizens will not change our rigid quota system for legal immigration. That’s another topic for debate. Second, we should have more immigrants coming into the United States anyways. For starters, we are a nation of immigrants so it’s hypocritical of us to deny others immigration to this country when our ancestors took advantage of that opportunity. Also, many refugees and asylees are fleeing violence and hardship ranging from civil war, state persecution, gang violence,[[no comma]] and famine. These people deserve a place to be safe and make a better life for themselves. 

This sentiment is etched into the symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Third, immigrants bring new customs and traditions that add to the melting pot of this country, making it better. Part of what makes America great is the fact that we’re so diverse. 

Furthermore, from an economic perspective, some immigrants bring skills into this country that boost our economy and create jobs. A study of refugees, a specific type of immigrant, found that while they do incur a short term cost on the economy, their long term benefits far outweigh them. And refugees are the immigrants who rely the most on government support. Most other immigrants come into this country with family and employment waiting for them

  1. Undocumented immigrants, a specific type of noncitizens, have committed a crime and thus should not be able to vote.

First, there is a long standing debate if convicted felons should lose the right to vote or not. I personally am conflicted between opposing disenfranchisement while upholding the principle that people who possess violent, dangerous and bad-faith judgment should not be deciding on the laws — rapists, murderers, arsonists, fraudsters. However, an undocumented immigrant cannot be put into that same category. Their only crime is crossing a border. They’re not hurting anyone or stealing from anyone. 

And if your argument is that they’re stealing from taxpayers since they might use government services but not pay taxes, I say this: Poorer individuals using government services also don’t pay much federal and state income taxes, but they pay as much sales tax as undocumented immigrants, and no one is saying poorer people shouldn’t vote because they’re “stealing” from taxpayers. 

And if you’re saying that undocumented immigrants are stealing from the United States because they are “taking” Americans’ jobs, I say that we allow undocumented immigrants to formally work, reducing incentive for employers to hire undocumted people under the table. And if you’re arguing that they’re still stealing jobs by virtue of being here, not due to how they got hired, I ask this: If I move to a new town and apply for a fast food job in that town, am I stealing from that town? No one wants to penalize everyone who moves and finds a job in their new location. That dynamism is part of what makes America great. 

  1. Undocumented immigrants don’t pay all taxes.

Undocumented immigrants don’t have a social security number, making it more difficult to pay payroll and income tax. Therefore, let’s assure them they won’t be deported and give them a social security number so they can pay these taxes. They pay their fair share and they come out of the shadows of society. 

  1. This is radical.

First off, just because something is deemed “radical” doesn’t mean it’s bad. The Founding Fathers, abolitionists, women suffragettes, civil rights activists, feminists and gay rights activists were all dismissed as “radical” in their time. Second, if your argument is that we shouldn’t do this because it’s never been done before I say that if we thought like that, nothing would ever change and change has been good for this country as mentioned above. But also, the premise is just wrong. By 1900, nearly half of states and territories had had experience with noncitizen voting. In fact, noncitizen voting is not outlawed in the U.S. Constitution. If you’re gonna say these states must have outlawed it for a reason, the most cited reasons by historians for why states began to restrict voting for noncitizens were xenophobia and nativism. Not valid in my view. 

  1. Foreigners can just come here, vote and leave, rigging American democracy. 

I agree with this concern. To combat this, noncitizens would have to prove residency in the country for at least three years. Also, as part of background checks, the U.S. government would see if certain individuals have connections to hostile governments, so many of those would be weeded out. Also, to sway an election through this strategy is arguably impractical. Foreign governments only really care about federal elections since the federal government is responsible for military spending, trade and foreign policy. The position with the ability to give foreign governments the most power is the president. 

In the last election, according to my calculations, it would have taken 65,013 extra votes in certain swing states to propel the runner up candidate to victory (another reason to replace the Electoral College with the popular vote). I got that number by calculating how many votes former President Trump lost to President Biden by in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Nebraska’s 2nd district and adding one vote for each state (to put Trump over the top), which would give Trump an electoral victory — the narrowest path to victory. 

Over 65,000 partisans would have to slip through the background checks the year before a presidential election year (highly suspicious), and then leave after. They would also have to be placed in the exact right places, and it’s nearly impossible to predict what will happen in the election. It’s possible, no doubt. However, let’s also remember that if we enfranchise noncitizens, foreign governments would need to send more people to offset their votes and if we abolish the Electoral College (which we absolutely should do), these governments would need to send even more people. Furthermore, while it’s possible that these governments could send spies to do that, is combatting this far-off concern worth continuing to disenfranchise millions of people? I say no. 

  1. This would be a power grab for the left. 

There are many who will only view this proposal as a way for one political party to seize power. To this I will say a couple things. First, I don’t think that politics should get in the way of morality or philosophy. I believe that noncitizen residents should have their voices heard at the ballot box because in a democracy, all residents should decide their government’s course of action, not just a privileged few. Just because this would help or hurt one party is irrespective of the point. Second, if you’re concerned about this hurting your party, then maybe the party needs to expand its appeal. This is actually an opportunity to make an impression on people who might have not made up their minds yet on which party they favor.

Where do we go from here? Changing this at the federal level seems impossible. This idea is not in the mainstream and even if all Democrats (the party most likely to support it) voted yes on it, it still wouldn’t overcome filibuster in the Senate (60 votes to end debate) and it looks like filibuster is here to stay with a couple of key Senate Democrats saying they will not vote to get rid of it. 

Changing this on the national level is a long shot. However, we can change this on the state level. The U.S. Constitution gives states immense power over how to conduct their elections. Democrats have a supermajority in the California State Senate and California State Assembly, making the Golden State the best chance for a state to get rid of the ridiculous restrictions on noncitizen voting. In the state of California, we have over 5 million noncitizens, the overwhelming majority of whom are permanent residents. This is their country as much as it is ours (native-born Americans’). 

They deserve to have their voices heard in a democracy that is meant to represent all the people, not just the lucky few who happened to be born on American soil. 

The coronavirus pandemic has upended everyone’s lives but particularly those of lower income earners and people of color, who are disproportionately noncitizens. Now more than ever they should be able to voice their opinion through the ballot box since politics nowadays really is life and death. 

Eric Heilmann is very passionate about advocating for policies that embody the ideas that the United States of America was founded on — democracy, equality, the American Dream.