In the US, a significant population of the governed are not citizens in the eyes of the law. As repeatedly demonstrated during Trump era politics, this population of non-citizens are subjected to anti-immigrant sentiment from both the government and the public. In contrast to this, however, more and more local governments across the country are looking to grant voting rights to their non-citizen populations – a controversial but highly supported act. In contemplating the structures of democracy, what can we expect when these individuals are granted a voice via vote? What some regard as a threat to the status quo, others see as a justified expansion of democratic ideals.
Non-citizens residing in the United States constitute a considerable amount of the population. Overall, the US accounts for about one-fifth of the world’s migrant population. From this number, about 12.3 million migrants are lawful permanent residents, and 2.2 million are temporary lawful residents. Despite their prominent presence, they continue to be denied by government officials and the public, as exemplified by Trump and his supporters.
Trump was notorious for racializing immigrants on the campaign trail. Many will still recall his remarks about Mexican immigrants being “rapists” who brought drugs and crime across the border. Trump also supported the repeal of pro-immigrant policies, such as Obama’s Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals executive order, most commonly known as DACA. On January 25th, 2017, mere days after his presidential inauguration, he released his own executive order titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States”. This order threatened many non-citizens; not only did it call for the detainment of federal funding to sanctuary cities and to almost triple the amount of ICE agents, but it also expanded the deportation priority list. Any non-citizen who committed even a minor offense, such as jaywalking, would be at risk of deportation.  Trump’s supporters were not far behind in this rhetoric, as shown in a UVA Center for Politics report that concludes: Trump voters are “deeply and personally animated by a strong anti-immigration sentiment that unites their thinking across previously distinct and separate policy areas.” Non-citizens were often and continue to be one of their most targeted groups. Could the right to vote change that?
Most recently, New York City has passed a law that expands the vote to its non-citizen population. The law would allow more than 800,000 individuals to vote in local elections, including Dreamers, legal residents, and green-card holders. NYC joins other cities in Vermont and Maryland in passing a law of this nature.
Political scientist Robert Dahl states that the key characteristic of a democracy is “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens” . He cites free and fair elections as a means for citizens to express their preferences. Dahl also states that “the larger the proportion of citizens who enjoy the right [to vote in free and fair elections], the more inclusive the regime.” In this framework, extending the right to vote to a greater polity would promote the participatory nature of democracy. In an interview with CNN discussing the new law, newly-inaugurated New York City Mayor Eric declared that it is “imperative that people who are in a local municipality have the right to decide who’s going to govern them.” Politicians who hold anti-immigrant views would be challenged as non-citizens are granted voting rights. The promotion of nativist ideals, such as those exemplified by Trump and his supporters, would be better safeguarded against as a more representative population enters the voter base.
While some may argue that the expansion of the vote may further the partisanship and polarization threatening democracy today, it may so happen that the division across party lines may respond in an unexpected way. For example, a large base of the non–citizen population is majority Latino. Recently, more and more Republican politicians are campaigning to win the Latino vote, as they realize that it is a quick growing voter base. Revisiting Dahl’s conception of continuing government responsiveness, a democratic government is inclined to listen to its polity. If the Latino vote is expanded by including non-citizens, and Republicans continue to attempt to appeal to Latino voters, the tribalism that seems to fuel party polarization may be chilled as new players enter the game.
Many questions remain in the air surrounding this situation – How far will this expansion of participatory rights extend? Will non-citizens be garnered the right to vote in federal elections? How does this challenge the traditional conception of citizenship? Despite the controversial nature of this expansion of the vote, it remains of historical and political importance. There is no doubt that the demographics of the American population is shifting rapidly, and we must ask ourselves if our democracy is equipped to keep up. Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. Yale Univ. Press, 1978.