08/07/2015 05:51 pm ET | Updated Aug 07, 2016

Reviving Pre-Citizen Suffrage

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*Co-authored by Jonathan Arone, a legislative researcher in the office of Cambridge City Councillor Nadeem Mazen, and is an undergraduate in history at the University of Chicago.

"When a foreigner left his old life behind and traveled thousands of miles to start a new life in Wisconsin, that effort alone was more than adequate to demonstrate his loyalty and commitment to Wisconsin."

This sentiment, expressed at Wisconsin's 1848 Constitutional Convention, once reflected the mainstream American attitude towards immigrants. Local communities acknowledged the fact that regardless of citizenship, to put down roots in a community is to invest in its future. Municipal voting privileges followed, by right. Immigrant suffrage ensured that entire neighborhoods could participate in their local political processes for the first 150 years of American history.

A racially-motivated rollback of voting rights ended this era by 1926. This change left suffrage only to those who managed to become citizens, through study and frequently through lottery, before election day. Today, bureaucratic hurdles can turn naturalization into a decades-long ordeal--which arbitrarily delays the enfranchisement of those in our community who often have the most to lose. For the health of each city and town in the nation, it is imperative that lawmakers reincorporate people into discussions about schools, wages, housing, and tax dollars. Looking locally, pre-citizen voting is politically feasible here in Cambridge. We believe that its revival is practical, moral, and necessary as we come to terms with our national past.

What Have We Forgotten?

Citizenship was never a requisite for suffrage--until the complexion of migrants no longer matched that of lawmakers. Even a conservative Supreme Court once ruled in Minor v. Happersett that "citizenship has not in all cases been made a condition precedent to the enjoyment of the right of suffrage. Thus...persons of foreign birth, who have declared their intention to become citizens of the United States, may under certain circumstances vote." How did our stance on this issue shift to the right of a Court that denied women the ballot box?

Professor Ron Hayduk of Queens College is one modern historian documenting this saga. Questioning why our policy has changed in the last century, he asks, "Is it because they were different immigrants?...I think that [it is because of] the fact that a lot of the newcomers come from Latin America, from Asia, from the Caribbean, from other places...We have a racist history." For most of our history, they would have been pillars of civic participation--welcomed at any polling place.

The threat of losing a monopoly on governance to these newcomers is what led even liberal states like Massachusetts to enact literacy tests alongside citizenship requirements. Given the circumstances, the latter functioned like modern voter identification laws in practice. Eventually, literacy tests fell by the wayside of American history while citizenship inexplicably remained a voting requirement. The taxpayers who still cannot vote, working incredibly hard to put down roots as aspiring citizens, are most often people of color.

The landed white elite tried to ensure that immigrant opinions would not steer our nation of immigrants. Lawmakers and the Know-Nothing party took issue not with the idea of noncitizen voting per se, but with the people themselves who came here seeking inclusion. Today, even in Cambridge, we're dealing with aspects of that same fallout: a disengaged public that largely feels disconnected from (and often disillusioned with) local politics.

A Practical and Moral Need

If immigrant suffrage were revived, it admittedly would not be a silver bullet that solves every social problem in our city--or any city. We believe, rather, that it would lay the groundwork for lasting progress in myriad areas of public life. Debates over minimum wage laws, skyrocketing rent prices, and internet access rage on, all without full participation by the people who most need seats at the table. An increase in voter turnout through this reform may well steer us toward government that better represents its workforce and implements more sustainable, bottom-up economic policies.

A quick look at the facts demonstrates the need for voting reform. The Census reports that 27.7 per cent of Cambridge residents were born overseas, three out of five of whom are not citizens. This figure represents an unacceptable proportion of community members, regardless of citizenship status, who may not fully engage with their city. As recently as 1990, 40 per cent of the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood in Cambridge was foreign-born and 53 per cent spoke a foreign language at home. Further, a disproportionately high number of minority residents in Massachusetts struggle to combat the growing wealth divide. The legislation that we propose would help people formally improve their own conditions through engagement.

Making people wait so long to vote is not only unjust, but it worsens the civic education of tomorrow's voters. Immigrant contribution to school board elections would help to highlight more children's needs. Schools are a place where children familiarize themselves with social issues and our form of government, which fosters an appreciation of the democratic process. Immigrant community input is needed regarding school districting, ESOL classes, and counseling--yet it is rarely fully engaged or heard. The input of all residents will go a long way toward making a more welcoming school environment, and an investment in the future electorate.

To make this long-term investment, we need to assess what we can do in the short-term to jumpstart the process. Statistical study of voter turnout reveals that during recent waves of legal immigration, participation has decreased despite no corresponding explanation in factors such as age or income. Immigrants are not voting. Empowerment of noncitizens will help alleviate this issue not only by rightfully expanding the electorate itself, but as we predict, by activating civic engagement within social and neighborhood networks, impacting naturalized citizens as well.

Data tells us that naturalized immigrants vote less often than the national average, possibly because not everyone in their social circles can take part in elections. Enfranchising pre-citizens may facilitate a much-needed spread of ideas into otherwise under-engaged immigrant networks. Observing the zeal with which new Americans vote will be a powerful experience in terms of civic mobilization and solidarity. The introduction of absent voices to the public discourse could, in this way, have a ripple effect that is not often considered in voting rights debates. Reaching a critical mass in terms of voter turnout will mobilize immigrants and youths who resign themselves to malaise.

Young people need as much civic exposure as adult immigrants who don't vote. A Cambridge report acknowledges that "Many [adult] members of underserved communities of Cambridge do not have the same awareness of, and therefore ability to access, city resources." Often bound by restrictive suffrage laws, they have fewer opportunities to familiarize their children with civil society, service, and leadership. Inviting all of our communities to join the conversation will empower households more equitably, and set an example for the next generation of Cambridge's leaders as they grow up here.

Moving Forward

Other countries, forty-five in fact, have made more progress than we have on the democratic project that America pioneered, allowing noncitizens to vote. The call for election reform has been heeded elsewhere and its success should not go unnoticed. Even domestically, Chicago recognizes that their "first-generation immigrants are 25-55 per cent less likely to participate in formal civic opportunities than second-generation immigrants," and accordingly relaxed voting restrictions for its school board. Towns in Maryland have succeeded in allowing both documented and undocumented noncitizens to vote locally.

This summer we will propose sensible legislation in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the benefit of those on the long path to citizenship. Learning from past attempts at similar reform in Cambridge, we believe that extending the vote to documented residents is within the realm of possibility. Pre-citizen voting, enfranchising residents of over three years who are verifiably on the path to citizenship, presents itself as the reasonable compromise which we plan to execute. The ultimate goal is to send a petition to the state government like the one delivered ten years ago that would allow Cambridge to determine its own standards for local voter registration. We will present a strengthened case to City Council and all related parties in the coming months. The reform that we hope to spearhead is not a matter of cheapening citizenship. It is, as Professor Hayduk said to us, "the suffrage movement of our time."