Should Noncitizens Have the Right to Vote in Constitutional Democracies ?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on February 8th, 2007

Should resident aliens be permitted to vote? Lithuania has now adopted a constitutional amendment permitting noncitizens to have a say in local elections. Is this the wave of the future? Is it a good idea? Many resident aliens live and work in the United States for decades sometime for life. The future of their cities–and even the nation–matters to them. Why shouldn’t they have a say in the political dimensions of their lives? In earlier periods in the life of our Republic noncitizens did have the right to vote in some states. Consider:

Granting voting rights was seen as a way to get newcomers engaged in the civic process. In 1848, Wisconsin established a model that other states soon followed. It simply required residents to declare their intention of becoming citizens before being allowed to vote. Up until the 1920s, when a powerful, anti-immigrant backlash swept the country, 22 states and territories allowed legal immigrants to vote in local elections. . . . . “It was a proven pathway to civic education, political education, and citizenship by giving people a stake in their communities.”

Becoming a citizen is a long and arduous process. Why shouldn’t noncitizens be granted the right to vote rather than enduring the process? Of course, opponents reply that if noncitizens want to become part of the community, they should apply for citizenship. Opponents also raise the question of loyalty. But does becoming a citizen in any way guarantee loyalty or even make it more probable? Indeed, noncitizens now serve in the military. Isn’t putting one’s life on the line a fairly useful guarantee of loyalty?

This issue raises the question of voting: its meaning, value, and purpose. People are drawn to the United States for multifarious reasons. Some come to escape persecution; others leave their native homes to get better jobs or even for the chance to work at all. Still others come to provide a better life for their children. The underlying rationale for emigrating here is just to be free and to exercise their right–some say their natural right–to express their freedom in concert with others, to participate in a community bound by the desire each individual has to be sovereign over their lives.

Just how should the electoral franchise be designed in a constitutional democracy? Is the fact that a noncitizen is affected by elections suficient for granting her the right to vote? Or does the concern of some that noncitizens might not have the appropriate commitment or might be disloyal dispositive?

It also raises the question of why so-many citizens in the United States fail to vote. Ironically, this issue highlights the noncitizen’s desire to vote with the citizen’s–some citizens–indifference to voting. Also interesting is the fact that the right to vote is nowhere in the United States Constitution. As a nation the right to vote and the civic responsibility to vote should be taken more seriously. What precisely are the reasons for our hostility to the right of noncitizens to vote while at the same time many of us fail to exercise this right ourselves?


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