WASHINGTON – A scattered movement growing across the country would buck decades of conventional wisdom and allow non-citizens the right to vote in local elections, a move that proponents say would give immigrants the ability to directly impact government in their communities.
"We’re a stronger society as a whole if we have a good quality of life and everyone participates," said Ron Hayduk, political science professor at the City College of New York and a supporter of the movement.
"There is a greater likelihood that our representatives will be responsible to everybody," Hayduk told Foxnews.com. "This is a mechanism to make sure they are held accountable."
Critics, however, dismiss the idea. They say the right to vote is a sacred privilege and responsibility of the American citizen. Giving voting rights (search) to non-Americans "just fundamentally cheapens citizenship," said Steven Camerota, director of the Center for Immigration Studies (search).
Currently, five municipalities in Maryland, including Takoma Park, a suburb of the nation’s capital, allow non-citizens a vote in local elections. The city of Chicago also allows non-citizens access to board of education elections.
Efforts are also under way across the country to change local and state laws. Activists in cities like Hartford, Conn.; Washington, D.C; San Francisco, Calif.; and Los Angeles, Calif.; and in states such as Colorado, New Jersey, North Carolina and Texas, have been pushing for policy changes for some time, said Hayduk.
The municipalities of Amherst, Mass., and Cambridge, Mass., actually passed laws in 2003 opening access to voting to immigrants, but they have yet to get the state approval to move them forward.
Possibly the biggest effort is in New York City, where folks like Hayduk are rallying behind legislation that would open up local elections to at least one million legal immigrants there.
"It’s really frustrating to be part of a community and be told that you don’t matter," said Michele Wucker of the World Policy Institute (search), which has joined dozens of community-based advocates, labor unions, immigrant groups and local officials in New York to press the issue.
Until the wave of immigration led to a narrowing of voting rights in the 1920s, 22 states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote in local, state and even congressional elections, said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park. New York, in fact, allowed non-citizens to vote in school board elections until two years ago, when the local school boards across the city were dissolved in favor of a centralized system.
"I think it is a very important conversation to have. It would be a big mistake for people to reject it out of hand — it’s part of our history," said Richie.
Each state has the right to craft its own voting laws.
Opponents say the effort to get immigrant voting rights is a cynical way of cultivating Democratic Party votes, since immigrants and minorities are often more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.
"They see (immigrants) as likely Democratic voters," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter immigration laws. "Clearly, their motivation is to get these people to the polls."
Hayduk adds that critics who wish to assign partisan motives to the immigrant voting rights movement are missing the point.
"It’s not clear where their (immigrants) hearts and minds are, they are not a monolithic group," he said, calling current policy blocking immigrants from the vote "taxation without representation."
Their argument is that millions of non-citizens pay taxes, send their children to public schools and serve in the military.
"What’s the danger, what’s the threat?" asked Richie. "I think the burden of proof should be on those denying franchise."
Supporters and critics both acknowledge that no evidence suggests that the approximately 10 million non-citizens of voting age would take advantage in large numbers if they were given the right to vote.
In Takoma Park, for example, where about 77 percent of the population of 18,000 is of voting age, about 450 non-citizens have registered to vote, and turnout among this group is typically low, Richie said.
Despite initial opposition from Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York over non-citizens voting, activists there say they hope to wake a "sleeping giant" of existing voters to go out and support such a movement. Members of the city council are currently drafting bills for the state legislature.
Wucker said immigrants — especially those waiting in the backlog of citizenship, sometimes for as long as 10 years — are eager to participate in the election process.
"The time when people who are most excited about coming to a new community and learning about it is when they get here," she said. "You don’t want to lose that crucial opportunity."
But Robert de Posada, spokesman for the Washington, D.C-based Latino Coalition, doesn’t buy it. He said immigrants understand the tiered system of living in the United States, and that voting is a privilege one earns as a citizen.
"There have to be special rights that citizens have that other immigrants who haven’t yet decided to become citizens shouldn’t have," he said.
"The Constitution doesn’t say, ‘We the taxpayers,’ not even ‘We the residents,’" said Camerota. "It says ‘We the people.’"