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The Case For 'All Resident' Voting

Voters fill the booths at a polling station in Watertown, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Voters fill the booths at a polling station in Watertown, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The mayor of Somerville, Joseph Curtatone, recently asked the city’s Board of Aldermen to approve a home rule petition that would grant voting rights to non-citizen residents in municipal elections. In so doing, Somerville joins the list of Massachusetts cities -- BrooklineAmherstCambridgeNewton and Wayland -- in considering such proposals, which will require a new state law to approve these measures.

Massachusetts is not alone. Just last November, Montpelier, Vermont, made a similar move; as have at least 11 towns in Maryland. Several cities, including New YorkChicago and San Francisco, already permit non-citizens to vote in school board elections.

The impetus for many of these cities, including Somerville, is to grant their residents more opportunity to engage in civic life. After all, these residents are already attending parent-teacher conferences, working towards a degree, volunteering their time — and, of course, paying their taxes.

Right now, non-citizen residents are the epitome of “taxation without representation.”

In 2014, immigrant-led households in Massachusetts paid $3 billion in state and local taxes and $6.5 billion in federal taxes. Through taxes on individual wages, these immigrants contributed $981.7 million to Medicare and $3.6 billion to Social Security and 14.9 percent of the total tax revenue paid in all of Massachusetts. (In the country as a whole, non-citizens paid $328.2 billion in federal, state and local taxes in 2014.)

Right now, non-citizen residents are the epitome of “taxation without representation.” 

Ironically, many of these taxes go to support programs immigrants cannot access. So, even as they help Medicare and Social Security remain solvent, non-citizen immigrants are barred from accessing those social safety net programs and are ineligible for everything from the Children’s Health Insurance Program to federal student aid.

A similar dynamic plays out at the local level. Non-citizen Somerville residents are expending considerable amounts of money in sales and property taxes, without any say in local politics. Although their tax revenue funds public schools, libraries and roads, they cannot vote on any proposal that would direct how those dollars were spent. Although their contributions pay the salary of elected officials, they cannot select a mayor, alderman or school board official to advocate for their interests.

This problem touches every sector of society. One of the authors of this piece, Lauren Sampson, and our colleague Oren Nimni, are examples of disenfranchised Somervillians. Ironically, both of us spend our days defending the civil rights of others; we’ve even worked on voting rights cases and championed non-partisan election protection efforts. Yet we are deprived of the very rights we seek to protect.

"I've lived in Somerville for years," says Nimni, a graduate of Brandeis University and Northeastern University School of Law. "I sit on section councils with the Massachusetts Bar Association and consider myself a civically engaged person. But I have no say in local policies that affect my day-to-day life."

Unsurprisingly, all-resident voting is not without its critics. In Boston, City Councilor Ed Flynn stated during a public hearing that the right to vote is a “privilege reserved for U.S. citizens” who have “gone through the extensive citizenship application process.” But this is not historically accurate.

Until the 1920s, 40 states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote. The initial push to restrict non-citizen voting emerged after the War of 1812, a period of demographic change and increased hostility towards foreigners — particularly against Irish immigrants, who “generally opposed slavery.” Indeed, the first prohibition on non-citizen voting can be found not in the 1789 Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but the Confederate Constitution of 1861.

Until the 1920s, 40 states and territories allowed non-citizens to vote.

Deprived of the ability to vote, non-citizen residents have no reason to believe their elected representatives will actually represent them, and they have no way to hold those officials accountable should they fail.

Enactment of the home rule petition in Somerville (and in all other cities pursuing non-citizen voting or “all-resident voting”) requires new legislation to be passed at the state level. In 2017, State Rep. Byron Rushing filed a bill that would allow cities and towns to permit legal permanent residents to vote in local elections, but it was not taken up for a vote.

However, if cities like Somerville continue to pass these home rule petitions, it will put pressure on state lawmakers to act. If they do, non-citizens can become even more embedded in their communities: they can vote on policies affecting their families, businesses and homes, and have a say on how their economic contributions to the city are used.

Massachusetts has an opportunity to modernize its electoral process. All-resident voting could draw in hundreds of new voters and leaders, while its cities work towards its goals of increasing voter participation, lowering barriers to candidate participation and increasing the openness and transparency of the electoral process.

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