Non-citizens voting rights isn’t a radical idea

Voting guides in different language editions for the state of California published ahead of last year's presidential elections Keystone

As President Donald Trump wildly goes against democratic rights in the United States, it is time to transform his lies into civic truth - by guaranteeing non-citizens the right to vote in local and state elections and referendums.

This content was published on August 10, 2017 - 14:37
Joe Mathews, Zócalo Public Square,

Trump claims California allowed millions of non-citizens to vote in the 2016 elections. This allegation, while totally bogus, has put California on the defensive as the president uses the lie to justify a new federal commission devoted to making it harder for all Americans to vote.

Californians should go on the offensive – by embracing Trump’s ugly lie and transforming it into a beautiful civic truth. Let’s make our state more democratic — by guaranteeing California’s non-citizens the right to vote in local and state elections.

Sounds radical, right?

It’s not. In this country, there is no constitutional prohibition against non-citizens voting; states decide who gets to vote. For most of American history, voting by non-citizens was commonplace.

Given Trump’s threats both to immigrants and democracy, Californians should seize this moment to give the franchise back to non-citizens.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for our media partner Zócalo Public Square, where this text was published first. Joe Mathews

Affront to American principles

California is home to about five million adults (or one in six California adults) who can’t vote because they’re not citizens. This huge disenfranchised cohort is an affront to American principles.

Taxation without representation? These non-citizens pay taxes, but they are not represented.

Consent of the governed? Non-citizens must follow our laws — but they can’t vote to consent.

Home of the brave? Non-citizens serve in the military but can’t vote for the government that sends them to war.

Family values? Non-citizens are parents and thus legal representatives for their children, the vast majority of whom are citizens.

Form of apartheid

We Californians tolerate this American form of apartheid, even though the lesser status of non-citizens — especially the two million-plus undocumented Californians — makes them more vulnerable to abuse and removal from the country they’ve helped build.

To its credit, California has taken steps on behalf of non-citizens, who now enjoy in-state tuition to our public universities, driver’s licenses, the ability to practice the law, and — if they are children — state-funded health care.

But none of this is enough. All Californians won’t be equal until all have the right to vote. As Frederick Douglass said: “Where universal suffrage is the rule…. to rule us out is to make us an exception, to brand us with the stigma of inferiority, and to invite to our heads the missiles of those about us.”

Americans tell themselves that our country’s story is one of extending the franchise over time — to African Americans, women, 18-year-olds. But non-citizens have a different story: They had the vote, and lost it.


From the founding through the early 20th century, non-citizens voted in dozens of our states and territories — in local, state, and even federal elections. The vote was a lure for settlers and part of assimilation process.

4th of July parade in East Sacramento, California, with a 15-feet tall Uncle Sam Keystone

What better way to integrate fully with our culture, to educate yourself and your children in our civic traditions, than voting? The main objections came from Southerners, who feared the tendency of immigrants to oppose slavery.

But the coming of the First World War produced an anti-immigrant backlash against non-citizen voting in state elections. By 1926, every state had banned the practice.

Such voting has continued in limited local form.

Today, some Maryland cities, New York, Chicago, and (as of 2016) San Francisco, allow non-citizens to vote in certain local elections. And in recent decades, two dozen countries have established voting rights for non-citizens

Sweden, for example, permits foreigners who’ve been residents for three years to vote in state and local elections.

Door open

And in the US, Supreme Court precedent remains clear; states can let non-citizens vote if they so choose. While the federal government explicitly outlaws non-citizen voting in federal elections, the door is still open for local and state elections.

California should walk through that door.

"California should take the clear and just position: universal suffrage means universal suffrage."

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Non-citizen voting would not merely re-enforce our commitment to protecting our most vulnerable people; establishing truly universal suffrage would be a call for cohesion in a very polarised time.

California’s electorate is far older and whiter than the state as a whole; non-citizen voting would make the population of voters more representative.

Expanding the franchise in this way would also reflect the reality that citizenship, like California identity itself, is as much a state of mind as a legal designation.

If you’re an Angeleno who roots for the Dodgers, pays our too-high taxes, battles our traffic, volunteers in your community, and sends your kids to public schools, how are you any less of a California citizen than me?

Diverse array

By the same token, the arguments against enfranchising non-citizens make little sense.

The idea that non-citizens constitute some distinct, isolated group that doesn’t fit here is at odds with reality. California’s non-citizens are a diverse array of people by origin, class and education, just like our citizens.

And the go-to argument of the anti-immigrant crowd — that excluding non-citizens from voting makes our society cohesive — is a tautology, as the legal scholar turned Congressman Jamie Raskin has written:

“When opponents of inclusion make an argument about insufficient commonality, they are only reinforcing and deepening what they claim to bemoan.”

Practical problem

Practically, establishing non-citizen voting would be hard.

It might require a new governor; Jerry Brown, who has said voting should be reserved for US citizens. And in an era of mass deportation, few undocumented Californians would register to vote, since it means putting your name and address on a public list.

But that shouldn’t stop us from enfranchising non-citizen Californians who have spent at least five years here.

The safest way to do that is to permit voting only in local elections. Allowing non-citizens to vote also in state elections would escalate our war with the federal government, since voting for federal representatives is conducted at the state level, and non-citizen voting for federal offices is illegal.

But escalation is inevitable. Trump will attack and lie about California and its voting practices, whether we let non-citizens vote or not. So why let federal opposition stop us from doing the right thing?

California should take the clear and just position: universal suffrage means universal suffrage. If America is going to persist in calling itself a democracy, there ought to be at least one state in this country that is an actual democracy.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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