Passing the “Our City Our Vote” bill would allow nearly a million of the city’s legal permanent residents, or green card holders, to vote. What stands in the way of this landmark legislation is political will and a waning window of support.
In the aftermath of the U.S. election, there is a lot to be hopeful about, including record high voter turnout. With 159.8 million people voting, President-elect Joe Biden secured victory with over 50 percent of the popular vote. However, even in a solidly blue state like New York, over 900,000 residents were ineligible to vote.
With less than a year to go for one of the most critical municipal elections in recent history — with 23 seats up for grabs, and no incumbent mayor or comptroller —the upcoming 2021 election is a unique opportunity for voters to shape the future of our city. And there is one way the speaker of the City Council can ensure everyone gets a fair shot.
Passing Intro 1867—also known as the “Our City Our Vote” bill—would allow nearly a million legal permanent residents (or green card holders—although some argue that the card looks more teal) to vote in New York City. The legislative amendment would enfranchise many of our neighbors, New Yorkers who have been living and contributing to this city for generations, to have their say in who runs their kids’ schools, how often their trash gets picked up and what our city budget goes to.
Many of those the legislation would equip with the right to vote are also already on the path to naturalization but are unable to vote at no fault of their own. Bureaucratic delay, chronic underfunding, and systemic racism against immigrants of color—in particular Black immigrants—undergird an outdated system and pose as barriers to keep green card holders from becoming citizens. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the primary agency responsible for processing green card applications, has requested an emergency $1.2 billion in supplemental funding to prevent mass furloughs. Alongside a deficit, the average processing time for a citizenship application has ballooned—it has doubled since 2014, and the overall naturalization process can take six to eight years. Non U.S. citizens from countries like the Philippines, Mexico, India, and China face a 15-year delay, if not longer, and green card holders from African countries like Nigeria face bureaucratic purgatory, with their applications stalled indefinitely. As a result, a situation in which non-citizens are unable to vote for local elections is akin to creating a second class of citizens, keeping many who have already lived here for decades and pay millions in taxes every year away from having any voice in their own city.
And the local charter amendment is not as unprecedented as it sounds—in fact, it’s about restoring the right to vote. Between 1968 and 2003, non-citizens could legally vote in school board district elections as well as run for a seat on school boards here in New York City. Prior to that, the State of New York’s charter gave the vote to all white male residents regardless of whether they were a citizen or not (much like the rest of the country since its founding.) Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C., to name just a few cities around the country, have enfranchised millions of non-citizens for years. Non-citizens can vote in local elections in the United Kingdom, Italy, Chile and many other countries, too. This is not an unprecedented request from advocates around the city, it is an appeal to the very values that make New York City unique, and a city for all.
What stands in the way of this landmark legislation is political will and a waning window of support. The bill, sponsored by Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, already has the support of 27 signatories plus public advocate Jumaane Williams. And advocates like Theresa Thanjan, director of member engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition, and her colleagues call this bill an act of moral courage.
In order to enfranchise voters prior to the municipal election in the spring of 2021, the bill requires the support of the majority of councilmembers and the Speaker in order to conduct a hearing and vote before the Council goes on recess. Mayor Bill de Blasio, despite running on a platform to make New York the most equal city in the country, has repeatedly absolved his responsibility, claiming in a press conference, “My view is we need to fix our immigration system.”
Prior to my writing this op-ed, I worked on the 2020 Census and was able to meet countless immigrants like myself vying to make New York a better place for us all. After a slew of targeted attacks doled out by one of the most racist presidents in recent history, many immigrants felt alienated and left out, telling me they didn’t think they were included when we spoke about the Census being for “all New Yorkers.”
A Quinnipiac poll commissioned by my former employer, the Association for a Better New York, found that 61 percent of legal residents who were non-citizens felt discouraged and like they were not included when asked about the census, despite being told that it was for them, too.
Non-citizens in New York have borne the brunt of the pandemic disproportionately, with many immigrants serving as essential workers, facing record high unemployment, and contracting the virus at higher rates. Equipping New Yorkers with the right to vote, regardless of their paperwork, is one step in ensuring the city lives up to its dream and promise. With the city’s future on the ballot, it’s time to call on Speaker Corey Johnson to hold a hearing to restore our neighbors’ right to vote.
Aliya Bhatia is a policy professional working on tech, immigrants’ rights, and civic participation. Most recently, she worked on the city-wide 2020 Census campaign to ensure all New Yorkers got counted. She has her Master’s degree from Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter at @AliyaBhatia