Want to Resist Xenophobia in 2017? Start Local

By Hannah Critchfield 2-01-2017

While much of the country is still reeling from the presidential election, residents of Hyattsville, Md., are preparing to vote — some for the first time ever (in the United States). Thanks to an amendment the Hyattsville City Council passed this December, non-U.S. citizens now have the right to vote in municipal elections.

Residents of the city who hold green cards, have refugee status, or are undocumented will now be able to play a role in selecting who they want representing them at the most immediate, local level. The amendment does not allow them to run for office or participate in county, state, or federal elections, but does permit them to serve on the Board of Supervisors of Election. Noncitizens must simply have lived in the city for more than 30 days and not claim the right to vote elsewhere in the United States.

In case you were wondering, this is totally legal. Though federal law prohibits non-U.S. citizens from voting in federal elections, the U.S. Constitution gives states and municipalities the right to decide who is eligible to vote in their elections. And for most of U.S. history, noncitizen voting in local elections has actually been the norm. More than 40 states have a history of allowing non-citizens to vote at one point or another. Still, no state has allowed noncitizen voting in state elections since the 1920s, when rising anti-immigrant sentiment led to a nationwide repeal of noncitizen suffrage rights. Today, only eight other municipalities, all in Maryland, grant noncitizen voting in local elections.

One of these cities, Takoma Park, has allowed non-U.S. citizens to vote for more than 20 years. The law passed in 1991 amid criticism that the city would quickly become overpopulated with undocumented immigrants and undermine national security. The longstanding success of this policy, with no observable major demographic or economic changes to the city, directly counters the narrative that giving noncitizens rights will dismantle the fabric of American society.

For the city of Hyattsville, the move was practical, an obvious next step in increasing fair representation of their community. According to the immigrant advocacy organization CASA, about 15 percent of Hyattsville’s approximately 18,000 residents will be affected by the new law. But the decision is also timely, increasing non-U.S. citizens’ political power at a moment when our federal government is feverishly working to strip it away.

Perhaps Hyattsville could be a case study in resistance. If the presidential election has taught us anything, it’s that local elections matter. As you Lyft to Starbucks, consider advocating for legislation that would legalize noncitizen voting in your city. In some ways participation in local elections seems like a small right to grant, but it is a way to give members of your community who lack citizenship access at a time when the rights of “the other” are most threatened.

As we stand and say, “I’m with the Muslims, I’m with the immigrant, I’m with the refugee,” let us recognize that they have already been with us. Passing a law giving non-U.S. citizens the right to vote not only says we want you as members of our community; it acknowledges the ways non-U.S. citizens already make our country great. It preaches tangible hospitality in the face of plans to build tangible walls. It declares, “We want to elevate your voice, even as executive orders try to silence it.”

To put it another way: Voter suppression groups and whistle-blowing white nationalist news sources like Breitbart have long claimed that immigrants without legal status are taking over through elections — maybe it’s time we made that a little easier.

Hannah Critchfield is a freelance journalist covering the intersection of religion, gender, and political movements and the Development Assistant at National Women's Law Center.

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