“Citizens Vote” Initiatives Are a Huge Opportunity for Those Who Believe In Immigrant Rights

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

In Florida and other states, Trumpians and others are pursuing ballot initiatives that say voting is only for citizens.

In so doing, they are merely ratifying the current reality. Of course, these initiatives aren’t about reality. They are about ratifying the president’s bigoted and bogus fantasies that non-citizens are voting everywhere, and especially in California.

So far, those who support immigrant rights and voting rights are not talking much about these measures. They are viewed as a phony political ploy to juice pro-Trump turnout.

I think that view is too cautious. The “Citizens Vote” initiatives represent a huge opening to flip the narrative against the Trumpians, and to expand voting rights so that we might have universal suffrage in this country.

To put simply, non-citizens who pay taxes and have been residents for a decent amount of time should be able to vote in state and local elections. These initiatives provide an opportunity to make the case for expanding that franchise.

I’ve made that case before and at length in this space. Please take a read here to see the whole case.

The reasons for letting non-citizens vote are historical, moral, legal, and practical. Those who have sought to stop non-citizens from voting have always been (since the idea’s origins in the Confederate Constitution) interested in reducing the rights of immigrants and those not considered white.

At a moment when the people behind these initiatives also want to denaturalize non-white citizens and “send them back” to their birth countries, or the countries of their ancestors, this is the moment to pounce. These Citizens Only initiatives betray a larger agenda of limiting citizenship and stripping it from those who have it in service of electoral advantage.

The Citizens’ Only initiatives would conceivably strip away the voting rights of people in the handful of localities that allow non-citizens to vote (like San Francisco does in school board races). They would also take away potential voting rights from millions of taxpayers who aren’t citizens—talk about taxation without representation. And they would disenfranchise the many military veterans who aren’t citizens.

Once these Citizens’ Only initiatives are defeated, they should be countered with measures in the states to explicitly guarantee voting rights for non-citizens after a period of residency. Non-citizens may need these rights, since the naturalization process has been turned into a bureaucratic swamp by the Trumpians. (In normal times, measures like these would encourage more people to naturalize, but we live in a country where the white supremacist Stephen Miller has power over immigration policy).

 In addition, the lawless and unconstitutional attacks on immigrants and immigrant families—essentially, Trump has made all immigrants presumptively “illegal”—mean that many people who have spent decades here will never be able to become citizens and achieve voting rights.

That is the intention of the Trumpians—and of these initiatives. And there is a word for that kind of policy—apartheid. The goal is to keep millions of people here who lack the rights of full citizens. Giving non-citizens the vote is the best way to fight back, and restore what is truly great America—the fact that anyone can become American.

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