Noncitizens and the Franchise

Although the right to vote is commonly thought to be only reserved for U.S. citizens, no provision in the U.S. Constitution requires U.S. citizenship for the franchise. In fact, noncitizens were able to vote in the United States during early colonial times, and continued to do so through the nineteenth century. Rather than determining voting rights based on citizenship, the criteria used at the time included property ownership, race, and residence. At least one state supreme court countenanced the right to vote of an ‘‘unnaturalized foreigner’’ under its state constitution. In that same case, the court noted that noncitizens voted under the constitutions of ten states were able to vote, since they were ‘‘inhabitants’’ or ‘‘freemen’’ in their respective states. However, by the late 1920s, as a result of nationwide anti-immigrant movements, many state constitutions were amended to disenfranchise noncitizens.

Noncitizens who reside permanently in the United States are members of the political community and are subject to democratic duties such as the payment of taxes and service in the U.S. military. Thus, arguably, they should be able to exercise the right to vote in face of their civic obligations. This argument has met with limited success, and mostly at the local level, where noncitizens have been allowed to vote for particular elections. For example, noncitizen parents of schoolchildren are eligible to vote for school board members in Chicago and New York City. Some localities in Maryland also allow noncitizens to vote and even to hold municipal office.

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References and Further Reading

  • 105 Illinois Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/34-2.1(d)(ii).
  • Aylsworth, Leon E. ‘‘The Passing of Alien Suffrage.’’ American Political Science Review 25, no. 1 (1931): 114-6.
  • Harper-Ho, Virginia, Noncitizen Voting Rights: The History, the Law and Current Prospects, Journal of Law and Inequality 18 (Summer 2000): 271–322.
  • Kettner, James H. The Development of American Citizenship, 1608–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.
  • Neuman, Gerald, ‘‘We are the People’’: Alien Suffrage in German and American Perspective, Michigan Journal of International Law 13 (Winter 1992): 259–95.
  • New York Education Law, Section 2590(c)(3).
  • Raskin, Jamin B., Legal Aliens, Local Citizens: The Historical, Constitutional and Theoretical Meanings of Alien Suffrage, University of Pennsylvania Law Review 141 (April 1993): 1391–470.
  • Spragins v. Houghton, 3 Ill. (2 Scam.) 377 (1840).

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