A mostly lame duck City Council last week passed, by a 33-14 margin with two abstentions, a bill that would allow registered non-citizens to vote in city elections.
The legislation, which Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign, allows green card holders the privilege that used to be reserved for citizens, provided they have resided in the city for a mere 30 days.
The bill’s sponsor says an additional 800,000 New Yorkers could become eligible to vote only in local elections. Given the anemic turnouts in city elections among today’s citizens, including Catholics, the Council’s plan might produce a grassroots wave of cooperative action.
That should be welcomed in this “diocese of immigrants.”
Of the 800,000 newly eligible voters, some 496,000, or 62%, live within the Diocese of Brooklyn, according to the latest figures from City Hall.
The number of green card holders who became citizens in 2020 in New York was 57,600.
This law-in-waiting raises a mixed bag of questions.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guide called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” urges Catholics to keep human dignity, the common good, justice, and compassion in mind as we vote.
In a June 2021 letter to Congress, the USCCB stressed the need to “ensure that all citizens are afforded their right to vote” — based on human dignity.
While using the word citizen, they did not address the question of voting among non-citizens; that issue was not on the table.
Can justice be found?
No doubt, judges will ultimately assess and decide on the wisdom of the City Council’s actions. It will go to the state courts, where its constitutionality will be sharply questioned. But the debate won’t stop there.
Many of our neighbors recall that, for generations of immigrants striving to become Americans, voting was a privilege to be earned, when one achieved citizenship.
We equate being a citizen — and, by extension, voting — with the receiving of the Sacraments. It is a process one goes through to achieve a lifetime goal.
The bill’s opponents say a newly-created bloc of non-citizen voters “devalues the votes of 5.6 million current New Yorkers,” as Council Minority Leader Joe Borrelli put it.
Also, some worry that a pool of new voters, from a wider sample of origin might erode the representation strength of established groups in elective offices they currently hold.
Even the bill’s backers cannot give a better explanation as to why this eleventh-hour action needs to be taken, except to say they are for expanding voter rights.
Ultimately, non-citizen voting is another one of those political lightning bolts which increasingly demand that New Yorkers ponder what we value and what we “devalue” — as individuals, as members of groups, as community-builders, and as people of faith.