Collision of national, NYC immigration bills could add thousands to voter rolls

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A controversial proposal in New York City to give voting rights to hundreds of thousands of non-citizen immigrants could make them into a key vote in America's largest city.

The Big Apple proposal, though, could resonate with other municipalities, inspiring them to follow suit -- and, if Congress approves an otherwise unrelated immigration overhaul, the number of newly eligible immigrant voters could swell into a potent voting bloc on the local level.

That's because the national overhaul being considered in Washington creates a so-called pathway to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants. By itself, this does little in the near-term to give non-citizens the right to vote. But if New York City approves its plan to give its 800,000 legal immigrants a say in city politics, illegal immigrants could eventually join the voter rolls there as well. And they wouldn't have to wait for citizenship to vote.

The idea is a controversial step in a decades-long debate over who should have a say in how their cities are run. Already, four Massachusetts towns and a half-dozen cities in Maryland allow non-citizen immigrants to vote on a local level.

Others, though, wonder whether these measures could unfairly funnel in those voters to make significant changes.

"This isn't about voting rights and democracy," Bob Dane, communications director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told "This is a push to sign up Democrats."

New York Democratic Councilman Daniel Dromm is behind the bill that would open all city elections to immigrants with a green card. His proposal is gaining ground and if passed, would make The Big Apple the first major city in the country to give non-citizens the right to vote.

"That would make those people much more civically engaged in the community and have a stake in the decision-making process and so that's really the purpose of this legislation," he told PRI's The World, a New York radio show. "As it stands now, one in five New Yorkers cannot participate in municipal elections because they are recent immigrants. This law would change that."

Dromm, whose office refused nearly a dozen interview requests from, could benefit if the proposal passes. Immigrants who are now ineligible to vote make up 68 percent of the Queens district he represents.

Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College, said the bill "will probably give progressive candidates and progressive lawmakers an even stronger position." In New York, for every GOP voter, there are five Democratic ones.

Giving immigrants a ticket to the voting booth would likely solidify any political lead he'd have over his conservative opponents, who generally disagree with the idea of widening the eligibility criteria.

Dromm's plan would welcome people who have been living in the country legally for at least six months to participate in city elections. They would be registered as "municipal voters."

According to the legislation, the law would go into effect six months after it passes. It is unlikely to affect the upcoming mayoral elections later this year. This group of new voters would eventually be able to choose the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, members of the city council and borough presidents. They would also get a say in all municipal ballot measures and be granted the same rights and privileges as citizen voters with regard to municipal elections.

These voters would not be allowed to participate in national elections. And under the separate immigration overhaul being considered in Washington, any illegal immigrant who is legalized would have to wait 10 years before applying for green cards.

So the impact on the voter rolls would not be immediate.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though, doesn't like the idea.

"Voting is the most important right we are granted as citizens, and you should have to go through the process of becoming a citizen and declaring allegiance to this country before being given that right," he said in a written statement obtained by

Dromm has disputed that, arguing that non-citizens had been able to vote in the past.

In New York City, non-citizens had been able to vote for the school board for three decades, until Bloomberg disbanded the board itself when he took office 11 years ago. During the last mayoral election, only 29 percent of the voters turned out. It was a 40-year low.

If Big Apple lawmakers go through with their more inclusive voting plan, it would make the city the largest in the country to dramatically widen its local voting base. To date, though, there has not been a calendar date set for when NYC council members might vote on the bill.

Michele Wucker, president of the World Policy Organization, supports the New York City plan.

"If you have people who want to get involved in civic life, why wouldn't you want to encourage that?" she said.

Wucker says letting legal immigrants vote in local city elections would most likely lead to them putting down roots in the community and eventually becoming citizens. But it's a process, she said, that won't be done overnight.

"Many states would have to change their constitutions to make it happen," Wucker said.

Presently, four Massachusetts towns have OK'd plans to let immigrants vote but are still waiting for approval on the state level. In Maryland, six small cities are pushing forward with their plans.

New York City would not need to wait for such approval.

But it's not all smooth sailing. Immigrant suffrage initiatives were shot down two years ago in San Francisco and in Portland, Maine. There are signs that parts of Portland could be reversing its stance.

Last week, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan went on a listening tour of immigrant-owned businesses in the city. Brennan has thrown his support behind a sweeping immigration reform bill in the state. Brennan's tour included stops at a taxi company, restaurant and grocery store.

Calls to Brennan's office for comment were not immediately returned.