President Donald Trump claims California allowed millions of noncitizens to vote in the 2016 elections. This allegation, while totally bogus, has put California on the defensive as Trump uses the lie to justify a new federal commission devoted to making it harder for all Americans to vote.
Californians should go on offense – by embracing Trump’s ugly lie and transforming it into a beautiful civic truth. Let’s make our state more democratic – by guaranteeing California’s noncitizens the right to vote in local and state elections.
Sounds radical, right? It’s not. In this country, there is no constitutional prohibition against noncitizens voting; states decide who gets to vote. For most of American history, voting by noncitizens was commonplace. Given Trump’s threats both to immigrants and democracy, this is the moment to give the franchise back to noncitizens.
California is home to about five million adults (that’s one-in-six adults) who can’t vote because they’re not citizens. This mass disenfranchisement is an affront to American principles. Taxation without representation? Noncitizens pay taxes, but are not represented. Consent of the governed? Noncitizens must follow our laws – but can’t vote to consent. Home of the brave? Noncitizens serve in the military but can’t vote for the government that sends them to war.
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We Californians tolerate this apartheid, even though the lesser status of noncitizens – especially the 2 million-plus undocumented Californians – makes them more vulnerable to abuse and removal from the country they’ve helped build. To its credit, California has taken steps on behalf of noncitizens, who now enjoy in-state tuition to our public universities, driver’s licenses, the ability to practice the law, and – if they are children – state-funded health care.
But none of this is enough. All Californians won’t be equal until all have that great democratic weapon: the vote. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”
Americans tell themselves that our country’s story is about extending the franchise over time – to African Americans, women, 18-year-olds. But noncitizens had the right to vote, and lost it.
From the founding through the 20th century, noncitizens voted in dozens of states. The vote was part of the assimilation process. What better way to educate yourself in civic traditions than by voting? But the coming of the First World War produced an anti-immigrant backlash. By 1926, every state had banned noncitizen voting.
Such voting continues today in limited, local form. Some Maryland cities, New York, Chicago, and (since 2016) San Francisco allow noncitizens to vote in certain local elections. And as global migration surged in recent decades, two dozen countries established voting rights for noncitizens.
But U.S. Supreme Court precedent is unchanged; states can let noncitizens vote if they choose. While Congress explicitly outlawed noncitizen voting in federal elections, the door remains open for local and state elections.
California should walk through that door.
Noncitizen voting not only would express our commitment to universal suffrage and to providing vulnerable people the democratic power to defend themselves. It also would make the voting population, now older and whiter than the state, more representative.
Establishing noncitizen voting – starting with local elections for noncitizens who have spent five years here – might require a new governor; Jerry Brown has opposed the idea. It will mean rebutting bogus arguments about how noncitizens are a distinct, isolated group (in fact, California’s noncitizens are so diverse they have more in common with citizens than each other).
And, yes, establishing noncitizen voting would escalate California’s war with Trump. So what? Trump will attack California whether we let noncitizens vote or not.
California’s position should be clear and just: universal suffrage means universal suffrage. And if America is going to call itself a democracy, the country ought to have one state that is an actual democracy.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.