The impermanent nature of politics being what it is, what was unthinkable in the past becomes debatable in the present and conventional wisdom in the future. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s call for a borderless hemisphere in the 2016 election has given way to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s declaration that illegal aliens are actually more American than those who would strengthen our borders, which has in turn given way to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s endorsement of noncitizens’ voting in American elections.
This latter idea may strike many conservatives as another example of the Left’s new leaders embracing radicalism, but the history and ideology of this issue are more interesting than that. I strongly oppose noncitizen voting, and have introduced a bill to ban all federal funding for states and municipalities that allow the practice, but I fear that, unless we understand the history of noncitizen voting and the ideology that underpins it, conservatives will be ill-equipped to oppose future waves of activism in this area.
Noncitizen voting was actually the status quo for much of U.S. history. It wasn’t until 1926 that Arkansas became the last state to ban noncitizens from voting, and 1928 that the first federal election without enfranchised aliens occurred. Since Article I of the Constitution provides that those who can vote in elections for the most numerous house of their state legislature may vote in elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, many congresses in our history have seen members elected from constituencies with significant populations of alien voters.
Initially after the ratification of the Constitution, Congress promoted alien voting, partly as an incentive for the settlement of new territories. Section eleven of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided that ownership of 50 acres of land “and two years residence in the district, shall be necessary to qualify a man as an elector of a representative” regardless of citizenship status. Alien suffrage peaked in the years after the Civil War – at least 22 states and territories allowed noncitizen voting around 1875. In my home state of South Carolina, the post–Civil War constitution of 1865 joined those of a number of other southern states in allowing aliens who had declared their intent to become citizens to vote.
As property qualifications fell away and women won the right to vote, noncitizen voting became more controversial. The rising tide of nationalist sentiment during World War I ultimately brought the practice to an end. Meanwhile, voting rights were expanding across the country to varying degrees, and would further expand later in the 20th century with the rightly celebrated Voting Rights Act of 1965 and bills to provide better access to voting for uniformed servicemembers abroad, among various other civil-rights bills.
But throughout the voting-rights debates of the civil-rights era, alien voting remained a fringe concept, relegated only to the most left-leaning jurisdictions. New York allowed aliens to vote in certain school board elections in 1968, but few municipalities followed suit. After the issue was taken up as a left-wing cause in the 1990s, we ended up pretty much where we are today, with around a dozen different jurisdictions across Maryland, California, Illinois, and New York offering noncitizens and even illegal immigrants access to the ballot.
In the service of their renewed push for noncitizen voting, leftists characterize noncitizen voting as a “logically unassailable, if not clearly mandatory, democratic practice.” Their theory places restrictions on the franchise for aliens into the same category as previous discriminatory efforts to restrict minority groups’ access to voting. If advocates of noncitizen voting are right, it is not principle, but political expediency, that keeps them from advancing this policy. They make three main arguments: that noncitizen voting is required by the social contract, that political outcomes will be biased against noncitizens without the franchise, and that noncitizen voting presents benefits to all voters in a given jurisdiction.
Each of these is wrong in its own way. The social-contract argument boils down to “no taxation without representation.” In other words, aliens are required to pay taxes and potentially serve in the armed forces, and therefore they’re entitled to voting representation. But aliens are not entitled to all of the rights and privileges afforded to Americans. For instance, someone with a green card who commits a crime can be deported from the United States, a penalty that would not be available or fair for a naturalized citizen. Other rights not universally afforded to aliens in the United States are the right to serve on juries, run for public office, or access certain government jobs.
If the social-contract argument is taken to be legitimate, then no country is entitled to distinguish between citizens and noncitizens, provided that the noncitizens pay taxes. It would preclude countries from providing different rights to different people based on immigration status. At any given moment, there are millions of people who live and work in our country on temporary employment visas, receive Temporary Protected Status (TPS), or occupy other immigration categories who cannot vote. Their residence is either permanent or semi-permanent.
The second argument for noncitizen voting is that it is discriminatory to prevent illegal aliens from voting, and that as a result, the laws that are made will be biased against those who lack representation. This is the same argument that was made in favor of allowing 18-year-olds to vote – if someone were going to be sent to Vietnam, he should get to choose his elected leaders. There’s one key difference, however, between an 18-year-old getting drafted with no voting rights and an alien: the 18-year-old did not choose his condition.
An alien voluntarily comes to the United States in search of a better life, hoping to work and to be part of the American experience, a process I support if it’s done legally. If they have concerns about what they believe to be discriminatory aspects of our laws, they are absolutely free not to come, and in the vast majority of cases retain full voting rights in their native countries. The 147 million people in the world who’d like to immigrate to the United States and the up-to-multi-decade green-card backlog suggests to me that the actual practical concerns about discriminatory public policy aren’t very serious. The aliens themselves certainly don’t think so.
Finally, there’s the mutual-benefit argument, which suggests that if aliens are allowed to vote, then they can make common cause with other marginalized groups in our society, and come together for the mutual improvement of our country. This is a classic example of how identity politics erases individuals. Who is to say that a single male alien from Honduras has the same interests as, for example, a female high-school principal who is an American citizen in a low-income community? It is just as likely that they have competing interests. The Honduran might be a construction worker, and therefore might benefit from reduced taxes on the construction industry, while the principal might benefit from increased spending on education. The history of immigration and assimilation is littered with these types of examples.
Part of the reason that none of the stated arguments put forward by leftists hold up to logic is that, even when advancing the radical policy of noncitizen voting, they can’t state their true view: that drawing a distinction between citizens and noncitizens of the United States is immoral. It’s the same principle that leads them to oppose both securing the border with a wall and enacting effective immigration enforcement measures. But, in the same way that a strong border is what protects the citizens of the United States from drug trafficking and terrorism, a strong border between who is and is not a voting member of our Republic based on citizenship protects and upholds the legitimacy of our institutions. Opposing the radical position on noncitizen voting is certainly a worthy effort for conservatives.