Although most Penn students will be able to go to the polls in a few months and vote in the primary elections, I will not be able to join them. I am part of a minority in the United States that has not yet received the basic right of suffrage. I am a foreigner.
Whatever happened to “no taxation without representation?” Legal noncitizens like the members of my family — and 19 million others who populate this country, according to the 2000 U.S. census — pay taxes, are eligible to serve in the military and are productive members of society. Why, then, can we not vote?
Opponents of noncitizen voting claim that the naturalization process is important in creating attachment to and gaining knowledge of the U.S. civics system. But gaining U.S. citizenship is a complicated, frustrating and expensive ordeal ($675 per person in naturalization fees). I have been here legally for more than 13 years, and I am still ineligible to apply for citizenship. Rest assured, I am very attached to this country and can recite the Pledge of Allegiance without much difficulty.
Although Americans have long equated citizenship with the right to vote, this relationship is actually quite new. It was only in 1996 that the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act prohibited noncitizens from voting in federal elections.
This nation has had a long history of allowing noncitizens to vote in national, state and local elections. It has also denied many citizens voting rights, including (most prominently) blacks and women. The 1874 Supreme Court case of Minor v. Happersett summarized it best: “Citizenship has not in all cases been made a condition precedent to the enjoyment of the right of suffrage … [And] for nearly 90 years the people have acted upon the idea that the Constitution, when it conferred citizenship, did not necessarily confer the right of suffrage.”
Individual states and cities have the ability to give voting rights to resident noncitizens in local elections. In Pennsylvania, for example, U.S. citizenship was not a requirement for voting in state elections until 1874.
This state would have higher voter participation if it reverted back to allowing noncitizen voting. In the 2008 presidential election, 35 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania did not bother to vote. In the 2009 municipal election, this number increased to a whopping 79 percent, according to The Patriot-News. It is lamentable that those who do not want the right to vote are so easily given suffrage, while some of us who care to vote the most are the ones who are denied the right.
Since 1975, New Zealand has allowed noncitizens to vote in its national parliamentary and local elections after a period of residency. For this and other reasons, the voter turnout for the nation’s 2008 election was 79 percent, 17 points higher than that of the United States, according to New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development.
Noncitizen suffrage is especially popular in metropolises with large immigrant populations. In 2005, the New York City Council introduced a bill that would allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections as long as they had lived in the city for at least six months. Unfortunately, this proposal was shot down by opponents of immigrant suffrage.
Last June, Toronto Mayor David Miller declared his support for noncitizen voting in the city’s municipal elections. “People who have chosen to make Toronto their home and live here permanently should have the right to vote in municipal elections in exactly the same way as Canadian citizens,” he told The National Post. “You can’t be an inclusive and open government unless all of the residents have an ability to choose that government.”
Governments shouldn’t prohibit legal, resident noncitizens from voting in the communities in which they, too, have a stake. It is time to give suffrage to the last of the United States’ disenfranchised population.
Prameet Kumar is a Wharton sophomore from New York. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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