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April 15, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor
by John Avlon
Immigration debates convulse American politics every decade or so, and it appears as though we're entering that silly season again. While right-wing activists known as the Minutemen are patrolling the Arizona border with an eye out for illegal immigrants, left-wing advocates in New York have convinced a City Council member to put forward a bill that would legalize noncitizen voting in America's largest city.
Council Member William Perkins of Manhattan has drafted a bill that would allow any immigrant over the age of 18 who has been a resident of New York City for more than six months the right to vote in all local elections.
The bill -- a draft copy of which was acquired by The New York Sun -- borrows its language almost exactly from the advocacy organization New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights. It is full of high-minded talk of how immigrants were able to vote in the early decades of the United States and run for offices including "alderman, coroner and school board member." Now the "no taxation without representation" banner is being raised on behalf of New York's 1.3 million voting age immigrant noncitizens.
In most places across the nation, the idea of noncitizen voting would be a non-starter, but New York remains in character and fact a city of immigrants. For every generation, immigration has fueled the success of our city, and each wave of immigrants has influenced local electoral politics.
But the threshold of citizen voting has been one of the mechanisms by which recent immigrants are encouraged to pursue full American citizenship. It is part of the healthy process of assimilation, which unfortunately remains unpopular among some folks on the far left. Allowing noncitizens to vote is the opposite of the melting pot.
Revolutionary War-era rhetoric aside, it is hard not to see this bill as a politically opportunistic power grab by the New York Democratic establishment which assumes it will permanently expand its 5-to-1 registration advantage by allowing noncitizens to vote.
Council Member Perkins's office would not disclose when he plans to formally introduce the bill, but given that this week marks the second annual New York City Immigrant History Week, there is some symmetry in moving forward a discussion that could have a dramatic impact on this year's mayoral election.
This issue was briefly raised by the 2003 Charter Revision Commission and then quickly put aside. But it remains a holy grail of local liberal politics, with Democratic front-runner Fernando Ferrer's political Svengali Roberto Ramirez, the former chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, telling the New York Times that "this would be seismic in its impact."
Though his campaign spokesman, Chad Clanton, Mr. Ferrer said yesterday that the issue "deserves a robust debate" because "it has a lot of implications for New York." While this stops well short of taking a position, Mr. Ferrer's previous employer, the Drum Major Institute, commissioned a study of noncitizen voting by Ronald Hayduk, an assistant professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, which enthusiastically compared the effort with the 1960s civil rights movement that secured African-Americans' right to vote. This comparison seems a dramatic dumbing-down of the evils of slavery and segregation.
It also ignores the fact that when it comes to immigrant voting, the current system appears to be working quite well. A study by Barnard College, Columbia University and the New York Immigration Coalition showed a dramatic local increase of 185,000 first-time foreign-born voters in the 2004 presidential election.
Advocates are quick to point out that six towns in Maryland have already adopted noncitizen voting in principle. But the largest of those towns is Takoma Park, population 17,000 -- or about half a neighborhood here in New York. There remain questions about the legality of such legislation. A former Charter Revision Commission official stated that "the issue raises very serious legal concerns because the State Constitution limits the right to vote exclusively to U.S. citizens. To overcome those constitutional obstacles, the State legislature would have to authorize a Statewide referendum on this issue and, depending on the outcome, the City would then need a Citywide referendum to make the change for City elections. The Council does not have the power to legislate this change without the voters."
Mr. Perkins presumably disagrees with this legal assessment, but it raises the possibility that Mayor Bloomberg is in effect being set up. The mayor is engaged in the fight of his political life -- trailing Mr. Ferrer in most polls -- and if forced to veto such a noncitizen bill on legal grounds, he could be unfairly caricatured as anti-immigrant. If this is part of the calculation, it is cynical old school New York ethnic politics, evidence of a desire to divide in order to conquer.
In a City Council where 48 of the 51 seats are held by Democrats, it is unlikely that there would be the widespread political courage to oppose such a bill if it came to the floor. It is political pandering, an example of how we New Yorkers are sometimes seen as living in an out-of-touch fishbowl. Most council members won't try to understand why, to many people around the nation, the concept of noncitizen voting sounds like a caricature of New York liberalism, creating new rights without concurrent responsibilities.
I am very proud to be the grandson of immigrants, but their deep patriotism came directly from the process of investing themselves wholly in America. It may be politically expedient for local Democrats to back such a bill, but common sense and fidelity to lasting American values should outweigh the easy political pull. It is possible to be strongly pro-immigrant yet have the political courage to stand up and speak out against a bill which would cheapen the currency of citizenship. There are plenty of urgent and legitimate election reforms which need to be taken on. This is not one of them.
John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001. He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).
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