August 09, 2004

The Right to Vote

The right to vote is a central incident of citizenship, that and the right to serve on a jury. There is a movement afoot to grant the right to vote in local elections, but you know it won't stop there, to non-citizens. I could not be more opposed.

The NY Times covered this issue this morning, in a typical NY Times friendly way.

The arguments advanced in support of this position in the article fall into three groups: one, they pay taxes; two, history permitted it; and three, diversity requires it. These arguments are all garbage.

Argument One:

"It will happen,'' said Tamrat Medhin, a civic activist from Ethiopia who lives here. "Don't you believe that if people are working in the community and paying taxes, don't you agree that they deserve the opportunity to vote?''

Calling for "democracy for all," immigrants are increasingly pressing for the right to vote in municipal elections. In Washington, the proposed bill, introduced in July, would allow permanent residents to vote for the mayor and members of the school board and City Council.

Actually, no, I don't believe that. Simply put, I believe that voting is a right best restricted to: those who have agreed to be bound by our shared system of beliefs and interests; to those who have foresworn allegiance to a foreign monarch or state; those who are committed enough to this society that they choose freely to take an oath to defend it and support it and sustain it; and, finally, those who intend to stay here and live out there lives here as fellow citizens. I don't want and don't believe it is in the best interests of our society to have people vote on important issues who might just pack it in and go back to their native Ethiopia, for instance, when it comes to retirement. Are these people who may have no intention of residing here long term going to be able to be counted on to make hard decisions about local bonds and borrowing? Are they going to say, don't matter to me none, I'm not going to be here in 20 years when that bond comes due?

You want a voice, take the oath. Simple as that.

Argument Two:

They also note that the United States has a long history of allowing noncitizens to vote. Twenty-two states and federal territories at various times allowed noncitizens to vote - even as blacks and women were barred from the ballot box - in the 1800's and 1900's.

Concerns about the radicalism of immigrants arriving from southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led states to restrict such voting rights. By 1928, voting at every level had been restricted to United States citizens. Today, some argue, those rights should be restored to noncitizens.

"They're paying taxes, they're working, they're contributing to our prosperity,'' said Jim Graham, the councilman who introduced the bill here. "And yet they're not able to exercise the franchise. "This is part of our history. A lot of people don't know what the history of this nation is in terms of immigrant voting; they don't understand even that localities can determine this issue. It's a very healthy discussion.''

Jimbo, you ain't reaching far enough back in terms of history to understand the importance of the decision of restricting the franchise to those who vote. Let's reach back a little farther and consider the public debates held during the period when the Constitution was adopted, from 1774 and on.

The debate, as best as I can recall it, centered on the issue of property ownership. One side wanted to restrict the right to vote to those citizens who held a certain amount of property. It was felt that these citizens would likely be less inclined to approve flighty measures and more inclined to support the long term good of society because of their stake in it. The other side disagreed. The other side, obviously, won. However, it took years and at no time was it thought that the right to vote should be extended to those who have no formal stake in society. I will have to go back and re-read some of the debates, it's been 20 years since I looked at this, but they were fascinating.

If you go back far enough, it was clear that the right to vote was meant to be given only to citizens.

Moreover, let's consider, at least anecdotally, the change in character of immigrants. Immigrants who came to this country in the period Jimbo is talking about came to stay, to make new lives in a better place. They were not going back. First, travel was difficult and expensive. Second, the places they left were not very free or nice. All that has changed. My impression, and I don't have the time to do any research to back this up, is that the character of immigration has changed from those looking to make a life long change to those looking to stay for several years and then return, richer, to their countries of origin to retire, aided by greater ease of travel, among other things. So, why would it be desirable to give these economic, short-term immigrants the right to vote? I could see how a long time immigrant might have the stake in society we would want to see, but a short termer who may lack the long term horizon and point of view? This is not your grandfather's immigrant.

In my view, history does not provide the justification they are looking for.

Argument Three:

"A lot of communities are not represented by representatives who reflect the diversity in their communities and are responsive to their needs,'' said Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and an advocate for immigrant voting rights. "It raises basic fundamental questions about democracy.''

Ron, you are wrong on so many levels. First, diversity is not a constitutionally enshrined right. It is not a requirement that a representative "reflect the diversity" of his or her constituents. It is asinine to suggest that it is a requirement. You want a voice in the selection of your representative? Take the oath. Otherwise, assume that your representative will represent your community's concerns as a whole. If not, form a lobbying group or a neighborhood association and go to the representative. Tocqueville stresses this as one of the great strengths of American democracy. Second, Ron, we have a republic and not a direct democracy. The difference is that in a republic we are one step removed from the legislative process by way of legislators who we elect as opposed to all citizens directly voting on every law. Third, basic and fundamental are kind of the same thing. Just cause you say it twice, doesn't make it so.

The right to vote is a precious thing. It is a bright-line test, too. Are you a citizen? Were you born a citizen or did you take the oath? If not, no vote. Can you imagine the administrative nightmare it will be to figure out who among the non-citizens should be permitted to register to vote? I shudder at the thought. No, this whole proposal is misguided.

You want to vote? Join me in my citizenship, there's plenty of room.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 9, 2004 09:58 AM

Hmmmm...I think we disagree here, dearie.

When I lived in Sweden, as a tax-paying resident, I was allowed to vote. Not in their massive national elections, but in the usual community type things. Raise taxes to pay for a bridge? Pay a toll? Vote for the Euro? And the thing is, I wasn't a Swedish citizen, but as a Swedish resident, with a home and a job and a vested interest, I voted for what I felt was best for Sweden. I wasn't trying to sabotage the government or trash the culture, and I imagine most who would vote aren't interested in it-they have a vested interest, too.

Getting citizenship and taking an oath-in any country-isn't easy. It requires years of residence. Proof of income. Proof of being a "normal citizen" (pay your utilities. Speak the language. I voted in Swedish for Swedish issues. Nothing wrong with that). I think it's the same for the U.S. People live in an area, pay their taxes, maybe want to be a citizen but can't and yet they have a voice.

By allowing people to vote, you are showing that you respect their opinion and are aware that they too want what's best for the country. It takes a lot to vote-even for the citizens!-so someone that WANTS to vote clearly has interest, likely has read up, and wants to support their new country. Exclude them from the presidential election, if need be, but by all means, local elections affect them too. Let their voice be heard.

I did, when I voted to support the best for Sweden and the Swedes.

Let's trust others.

Posted by: Helen at August 9, 2004 10:13 AM

Well, that's ok if we disagree. That's healthy and I never started this blog to only attract people to agree with me.

But, the thing is, it isn't about trusting others. It's about a privilege that others have died for, both to obtain and to defend. It's about the "other", as you put it, taking an affirmative step in our direction to join our community. To become part of us. As I said, there's plenty of room, but not for transients.

Finally, I don't know how relevant your Swedish experience is. Sweden is part of the EU which has been moving Europe generally in the direction of making national voting less relevant as, one, more of the important decisions are taken in Brussels or Strasbourg, and two, the freedom of movement of people allows for transnational voting of some kind or another. We don't have that to the same extent. There are so many differences that it becomes harder to compare the two systems.

As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, Helen, even where we disagree.

Posted by: RP at August 9, 2004 10:31 AM

Ah, but you can't define a transient, can you? I never planned on being one-I planned on living there indefinitely, on being a citizen, on remaining there ad infinitum. It was only that life threw a monkey wrench in my works, so I couldn't get that chance.

I can agree that national elections should be sacred, and for the citizens. But I still maintain that local elections should serve the people that the constituency is comprised of, for the good of the community. I too respect that people died for the right to vote in my country-but it was over 250 years ago, and oddly all of my family came along to the U.S. a long time after that.

You know I love ya' anyway. You're my big blog brother, after all. I have to :)

Posted by: Helen at August 9, 2004 11:07 AM

Actually, when I was talking about people dying I was not thinking of 250 years ago. I was thinking of the most powerful oral argument I ever heard. It was about 10 years ago, in the Second Circuit appellate court from a pro se litigant on an appeal from a voter registration requirement from the State of Connecticut. The litigant argued the case himself. He told the panel, by way of introduction, that when he was in the US Army, he came off the line after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge to discover that his absentee ballot was lost and he would not be able to vote in that election. He said that he stood there, cold and tired, and he vowed that he would never let anyone abridge his right to vote again. You could have heard a pin drop in the courtroom.

That is what I'm talking about by people defending my right as a citizen to vote.

As for local elections, I'm still opposed. There are issues of critical importance, sometimes even national implications, that are decided. It has been said that all politics are local in the US.

And you know I love you.

Posted by: RP at August 9, 2004 11:18 AM

It's an interesting argument, I must admit. I can see both sides of the coin.

I knew several mexicans in California who crossed the border to the US every year, worked for six months and then returned to Mexico to collect unemployment. They milked the system for all its worth.

But I've also known many hard working individuals who contribute vastly to the well being of their communities, and they can't seem to get approved for citizenship. Their only mistake is not having been born here.

I would have to give such a measure some serious thought before choosing sides.

Posted by: Mick at August 9, 2004 12:45 PM

Actually, Mexicans present an interesting challenge. As you may know, their government has permitted them, recently, to retain their Mexican citizenship if they become US citizens and is encouraging them to take dual nationality. I think that the aim is clear -- to be able to influence US domestic politics. And I can't blame them in the slightest, no matter how much I might resent the intrustion into our system.

Posted by: rp at August 9, 2004 01:41 PM

I fundamentally agree with you, RP, but I also feel that Helen's point about permanent residents' being able to vote in local/community elections is reasonable and fair. The problem it creates, of course, is a slippery slope: where do you draw the line between local and national elections? Should one really not "do the right thing" because of possible slippery-slope'iness?

Posted by: GrammarQueen at August 9, 2004 04:35 PM

I have to agree with Mick and Helen. Though the decision is not be taken lightly, it is one the merits serious consideration.
How many citizens have taken an oath to defend, support and sustain the U.S.? While it's true there are those immigrants that work for a few months and then leave, there are many, many more who come to the U.S. to stay. They come to work, have children and stay to live out their lives working and living in the U.S.
And really, how many of the citizens that can vote don't? Why not let those who have a vested interest and the will to vote, vote? Sure, you don't want non-citizens voting on who a Senator or President should be, but I strongly believe they have a right to be able to say who is going to protect or lead or plan out their future livelihood. I also think that the fastest growing group in the military are the children of immigrants, many of whom are still trying to become legal residents.

Posted by: Jester at August 9, 2004 10:45 PM

As much as I see your point, I have to delurk to say I agree with Mick and Helen. I'm thinking specifically of school elections. Parents who pay school taxes ought to have a voice in school budget and school board elections. The children, who may be citizens, after all, should have their interests represented.

Posted by: Terri at August 10, 2004 04:54 AM

First off... you keep saying "take the oath" but I don't think it's that simple. I have the idea that it is fairly difficult to get American citizenship as well as the fact that some people don't want to give up their original nationality.

For example, I'm not allowed to vote in any elections here, local or national. But I do follow the politics to a certain point, because I'm sort of active in student rights and such. To be able to vote, I'd have to give up my American passport and get a Dutch one... I have to find a way to get a dual nationality!

Anyway... you make such a cut and clear case of this - I think there are more issues than you've named, like the one that I named above.

On the other hand, I agree with you that residents shouldn't vote, only citizens. It makes sense...

Posted by: Hannah at August 12, 2004 01:58 AM

It's a difficult issue, I agree.

Posted by: RP at August 13, 2004 04:46 PM
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