Boston Emerges As a New Frontier For Noncitizen Voting in Local Elections

Buoyed by new local allies and a recent win in New York, activists hope for a breakthrough in Massachusetts to enable residents with legal status to vote.

Rachel M. Cohen,    |    February 28, 2022

City of Boston/Facebook

On the heels of New York City authorizing more than 800,000 noncitizens with legal status to vote in its municipal elections, Boston activists see their own opportunity to achieve noncitizen voting.

Chetan Tiwari, who has lived in Boston since 2015, says he would like the chance to weigh in on the local education policies affecting his family. He and his wife are from Canada, recently had their green cards approved, and have two daughters who are American citizens. “The level of education, the quality of education that my daughters are getting, is a conversation my wife and I have every single day,” he told Bolts. “Voting on those issues would make us very happy, it would be very important to us.”

This push gained new allies in November. Bostonians elected a new mayor, Michelle Wu, and new city councilors who said they support the effort. Now in power, they may pave the way for Boston to revisit the issue, and join a growing movement across Massachusetts. 

In recent years, the cities of Amherst, Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Wayland, and Somerville, have all passed ordinances to enable noncitizens with legal status to vote in local elections, though their efforts have stalled due to this state’s peculiar rules. In Massachusetts, unlike in New York State, cities must file a home-rule petition and the state lawmakers and governor must approve it. The Democratic legislature has for now ignored these cities’ petitions. Proponents hope that a breakthrough in Boston can give them further momentum.

The state’s 2022 elections, in which voters will select their lawmakers and a new governor to replace the retiring Republican incumbent, could also clear their path further.

More than a dozen communities across the U.S. already allow immigrants with legal status to vote in local elections, including 11 municipalities in Maryland and two in Vermont. Chicago has given noncitizens the right to vote in local school council elections since 1989, and noncitizens in San Francisco have cast ballots for the local school board since a citywide referendum succeeded in 2016. (Undocumented residents were also included in San Francisco’s measure.)  New York City brought many more eyes to the issue last winter when it enabled residents to vote in all municipal elections such as for mayor and city council if they hold a green card, are authorized to work in the United States, or are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. San Jose’s city council also voted last month to study the issue.

This practice was once common in local, state and even federal elections. For the first 150 years of American history, white, male property owners—regardless of citizenship status—were allowed to vote in many states, though the tide began to turn following nativist backlash after the War of 1812. Arkansas was the final state to end noncitizen voting in 1926. Efforts to shut the door to local reforms have also grown in recent years; Alabama, Colorado, Florida, and North Dakota all passed ballot amendments to embed in their state constitutions that only U.S. citizens can vote in local elections. 

Boston’s city council also has dealt with the debate in the past before. In 2007, Felix Arroyo, the first Latino councilor ever elected in the city, proposed a measure to allow legal residents to vote in local elections but it failed. The issue faded after Arroyo lost his re-election bid. In 2018, then-City Council president Andrea Campbell organized a hearing to discuss the idea. 

Campbell’s proposal would have granted the right to vote in local elections to immigrants who hold green cards and work visas, and to DACA recipients. The Boston Globe estimated that the proposal would enfranchise 48,000 Bostonians, which is about 7 percent of the city’s overall population. 

Campbell said at the time that the reform  could be a way to empower local immigrant communities who felt threatened and marginalized by the Trump administration. The idea was backed by Ayanna Pressley, who was then a Boston councilor and has since joined the U.S. Congress. “Our immigrant communities contribute to our economies, they contribute to our tax base, contribute to the vibrancy of our communities,” Pressley said. “I believe they deserve a say in who represents them at the municipal level.”

But not all councilors were on board. Ed Flynn maintained then that voting “is a privilege reserved for U.S. citizens.” Michael Flaherty also opposed the idea, saying enfranchising noncitizens to vote in local elections runs “watering down” the benefits of citizenship, “by either allowing folks to come in the back door or cut the line or expedite the process.” 

Still, much has changed in the last four years and activists say the conditions are more favorable now. It’s also not unusual for this type of issue to take a few tries politically. In San Francisco, voters rejected noncitizen voting for local school board elections in 2004 and 2010, before ultimately approving it in 2016. 

Beginning in 2019, Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide grassroots advocacy group, began asking local candidates in Boston if they would support noncitizen voting if it came up at the council. Ricardo Arroyo, Kendra Hicks, Ruthzee Louijeune, and Julia Mejia have all newly joined Boston’s city council since 2020 after telling Progressive Massachusetts that they support it. Wu said the same during last year’s mayoral race.

“I think you could get 10 out of 13 votes on the Council [today],” said Jonathan Cohn, political director for Progressive Massachusetts, who helped run those questionnaires. His experience resembles that of Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, a voting rights group that has asked candidates around the state in 2021 for their views on noncitizen voting. “Eighty out of 126 candidates who responded to our questionnaire said they supported it,” she said. 

Boston is currently experimenting with other measures meant to bolster local democracy. In November, more than two-thirds of Boston voters approved a ballot question to overhaul the city’s budget process, which contained a provision to  establish a new participatory budgeting process for a portion of the budget. Wu, the new mayor, also supported participatory budgeting.

On the same day, nearly four out of five Boston voters also backed a nonbinding referendum to switch their appointed school committee to one elected by city residents, adding new pressure on the government to democratize local school decisions. This change would require a home-rule petition, though.

Carolyn Chou, executive director of the Boston-based Asian American Resource Workshop, says the successful local organizing for an elected school committee and participatory budgeting is creating new opportunities to promote noncitizen voting. “Immigrant organizing groups and SEIU32BJ have been focusing on this, and I’m hopeful that with this new city council we may be able to move it along,” she said.

Kathy Henriquez Perlera, a community organizer with Neighbors United for a Better East Boston, also told Bolts her grassroots group would absolutely support noncitizen voting. Members of her organization have recently been exploring the idea of getting the city to grant municipal IDs for all city residents, similar to a program that exists in New York City.

Some immigrants’ rights activists have major reservations, however. 

During the 2018 debate in the Boston city council, Veronica Serrato, then executive director of Project Citizenship, said her group had worked with two immigrants in Massachusetts who had mistakenly voted in an election, disqualifying them from future citizenship. Allowing immigrants to vote in some elections may lead to errors—for instance, if poll workers give them the wrong ballot and they vote in an election they were barred from voting in—with potentially major consequences.

Mitra Shavarini, the current executive director of Project Citizenship, told Bolts this remains a worry for her organization, though she said they would abstain from taking a stance this time if a new bill came up in Boston. “We also aim to safeguard green card holders against possible issues that may jeopardize their ability to naturalize,” she said. “We therefore believe that it’s far more important to remove obstacles that impede immigrants from naturalizing than to solely push for voting rights.” 

Huang pushes back against this worry, noting that she heard a similar concern when voting rights proponents in Massachusetts were pushing automatic voter registration (AVR). “That was not a good reason not to do AVR, and it’s also not a good reason to oppose noncitizen voting,” she said. “Of course we also need to have crystal clear expectations and communications.”

To address these risks, cities that have enabled non-citizen voting often set up separate processes, including alternative local registration forms and voter rolls that are specific to voters who should only have ballots for local elections. They may also offer to provide residents a letter to submit alongside a naturalization application, as Takoma Park does. Local governments have also partnered with immigrant advocacy groups, to distribute non-citizen voting information in multiple languages.   

Damali Vidot, a city councilor in Chelsea, has championed the issue  in both her own city and statewide. “I tried to introduce a conversation on this on the city council a few years ago and people voted down a discussion, but at the beginning of last year, with Trump finally out of office, I decided to try again,” she told Bolts. She reached out to city councilors in Cambridge, Somerville, Brighton, Lawrence, and Boston to talk about the idea, and connected with a local immigrant rights group in her city, La Colaborativa. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get a consortium of resolutions or get different municipalities to pass it all at once?” she said.

Huang said noncitizen voting has not been a “front-burner priority” for local groups that are in coalition with the one she leads; groups are more focused right now on getting driver’s licenses for undocumented residents. But she says there is growing support for the idea in cities with high concentrations of immigrants and working-class people. “We’re talking about the post-industrial cities that have now been inhabited by a lot of refugees,” she said, naming Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, New Bedford and Chelsea as examples. 

Huang stresses that keeping noncitizens from voting significantly skews the electorate toward white residents, especially in cities where the population that is eligible to vote is majority white but not the overall population. “That was not quite clear to me until I looked at the data community by community,” she said, in reference to census estimates updated last year.

The city of Lynn, for instance, has an overall population of more than 90,000 residents that is barely a third white. But of the residents who are eligible to vote, the majority is white. Latinx residents make up more than 40 percent of the city’s population, but only about 25 percent of the electorate. 

This pattern is very prevalent in the dense stretch of municipalities between East Boston and the North Shore, Huang added. “I think that presents a really good case for why we absolutely need non-citizen voting,” she said.   

For proponents of expanding the franchise, the biggest barrier they cite is the state legislature. Its Democratic leaders have not brought the home-rule petitions of recent years to the floor. Advocates in the state have long complained that state lawmakers have shied away from strengthening immigrants’ rights.During the Trump years, advocacy organizations like Progressive Massachusetts kept pushing for the “Safe Communities Act,” which would have limited how local and state law enforcement could enforce imigration law, to no avail. Three of the chamber’s leaders, state Senate President Karen Spilka, House Majority Leader Claire Cronin or House Speaker Ronald Mariano, did not respond to a request for comment.

State lawmakers are all up for re-election in 2022, and so activists see new opportunities to apply pressure on them. Cohn, of Progressive Massachusetts, also noted that voting for immigrants with legal status was included in the state Democratic Party platform last year for the first time, thanks to the rising organizing around the issue.

But the upcoming governor’s race is what may give the issue the most impetus if an ally is elected and uses their pulpit to support the local ordinances. The wide-open race has drawn a crowded field, yet so far, few are willing to comment. Bolts did not hear back from Democratic candidates Danielle Allen, Orlando Silva, and Sonia Chang-Díaz. Maura Healey’s campaign declined to comment. 

Josh Caldwell, a socialist running for governor in the Democratic primary, told Bolts that he strongly supports enfranchising noncitizens. “The fact of the matter is, that not giving representation to those that participate in taxation seemed to be a core argument to a certain historical revolution,” he said. “Our systems have and will always find a group to otherize.”

Keeping up local pressure will be key, proponents say. Vidot, the Chelsea councilor, is confident the issue is moving forward. “Progressive politics basically means we’re ahead of ourselves,” she said. “It will happen and we just have to keep pushing.”