Public Advocate Calls For Restoring Non-citizen Voting Rights In Municipal Elections During Council Hearing

September 20th, 2021

Press Release

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called for the passage of legislation restoring voting rights in municipal elections to non-citizen residents during a City Council hearing on Monday. The legislation from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and of which the Public Advocate is a co-sponsor – the 'Our City, Our Vote' bill – would provide a process for lawful permanent residents in New York city to vote in municipal elections.

"Expanding the franchise through this bill will strengthen civic engagement, government accountability, and immigrant rights..." said Public Advocate Williams before the Committee on Government Operations. "... It is also critical to note that non-citizens had voting rights in this country for much longer than they have not had voting rights. From the founding of the Country until the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, non-citizens had the right to vote in many states and federal territories. Let’s be clear—the exclusion of immigrants from voting is a political choice rooted in racism and xenophobia. We can get this done—and we have a duty to."

The bill would also establish a five-person advisory group, with the Public Advocate as Chairperson, to provide recommendations regarding any problems or potential improvements with respect to the voting process implemented by the legislation. It would include appointees by the Speaker and Mayor.

Public Advocate Williams stressed that "This City has a multitude of priority initiatives that are affecting the immigrant community. It is critical that we amplify their voice in governance by extending them the right to vote... We should allow people who experience the worst impact of our policies the ability to vote on who is making those policies."

The Public Advocate's full testimony is below.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS 

TO THE CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS

SEPTEMBER 20, 2021

My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Thank you Chair Cabrera and a special shout out to Councilmembers Rodríguez and Salamanca for both of their bills. I’ll be speaking primarily on Councilmember Rodríguez’s bill.

I’d first like to lift up the plight of the 13,000 Haitian nationals at our border that the President is trying to send back. Very often, the plight of black immigrants is not lifted up as much as it should be—so I want to start off with that.

Immigrant New Yorkers shape our City in countless ways, but many are locked out of our electoral processes. This means City residents who fund, use, and provide essential government services have no political voice in how these services are funded and operated. It also means that elected leaders have no political incentive to advance policies that are of interest to these residents. Even when those policies most adversely affect them. As a sanctuary City that prides itself on its immigrant past, present, and future, this must change.

As a first generation American, as the son of immigrants from Grenada, I am proud to co-sponsor the Our City, Our Vote bill, Int. 1867 by Council Member Rodriguez, which would restore—and I think it’s important that we continue to say that, we simply restore— the right of non-citizen New Yorkers who have Green Cards and work authorizations to vote in municipal elections. Expanding the franchise through this bill will strengthen civic engagement, government accountability, and immigrant rights. I strongly urge my colleagues to pass this legislation.

I’d like to note that while this bill is transformative, it is not unprecedented. I hear a lot of pushback of legality—maybe it’s one of logistics we can move through. Because there are nine municipalities in Maryland where non-citizens are not excluded from the franchise: Barnesville, Chevy Chase Sections Five and Three, Glen Echo, Hyattsville, Martin’s Additions, Mount Rainier, Riverdale Park, Somerset, and Takoma Park. Additionally, in Chicago and San Francisco non-citizens are able to vote in school board elections. Further, New Yorkers who were non-citizens were previously able to vote in School Board elections from 1969 to the dissolution of the School Board system in 2002. It is also critical to note that non-citizens had voting rights in this country for much longer than they have not had voting rights. From the founding of the Country until the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, non-citizens had the right to vote in many states and federal territories. Let’s be clear—the exclusion of immigrants from voting is a political choice rooted in racism and xenophobia. We can get this done—and we have a duty to.

Whether it’s furthering language access, keeping Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) off of our streets, securing labor rights for delivery workers and street vendors, supporting small businesses, or improving and legalizing substandard basements, this City has a multitude of priority initiatives that are affecting the immigrant community. It is critical that we amplify their voice in governance by extending them the right to vote.

Very often in these situations it is people of privilege trying to prevent people from getting that privilege. The question we have to ask is: Why? Whether it’s marriage or voting rights—it’s what are we trying to prevent and why are we trying to prevent it? We should allow people who experience the worst impact of our policies the ability to vote on who is making those policies. And as I mentioned, we are simply restoring something that was I believe wrongly taken away from people in the first place.

I don’t have any questions, I just wanted to make that statement. I want to thank all of the panelists for all of the work they are doing to get this forward. Special shout out to Assembly Member Catalina Cruz who has been doing this work for quite some time and is a shining example of the people we are speaking about. This should be a proud moment for New York City. This should be a proud moment for our nation as we are pushing back on the xenophobia we are seeing. I hope that our colleagues support it and that our Mayor shows some leadership in a time where leadership is lacking from that side of City Hall.

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