According to July 2018 estimates, Stamford’s population is about 35 percent foreign-born. In a city of 130,000 people, that means about 45,000 residents are naturalized citizens, permanent residents or undocumented immigrants. Not to mention the larger family units that these individuals are part of, making immigration status a matter concerning the whole of Stamford. Immigration status is particularly relevant in local elections, as it keeps permanent residents and undocumented immigrants from voting in municipal elections. This is problematic because it creates a disparity between the needs of this non-voting block and the actions of the elected municipal government. How can a government respond to the needs of its residents if it does not listen to them through the electoral process? Stamford should allow candidates to listen to non-citizen constituents by allowing non-citizens to vote and run in municipal elections, including for positions in the Board of Representatives, the Board of Education, the Board of Finance and the Mayor’s Office.
The large proportion of non-citizen residents in Stamford means that they are present in almost every neighborhood, school and municipal building in the city. These are institutions that are largely shaped by elected boards and elected positions, but non-citizen residents cannot have a voice in their construction because they cannot vote for those positions or run for them. Therefore, how can Stamford’s government make comprehensive decisions if it is not hearing the concerns of a large portion of its population?
Allowing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections is not a matter of democracy but rather one of practicality and fairness that can be addressed within the parameters of democracy. Historically, the right to vote in the United States has been based on gender, race, and property ownership, rather than citizenship. Women, African-Americans and landless white men were once in the position that non-citizens find themselves in today: An aspect of their existence disqualifies them from participating in the legislative bodies that govern them. Citizenship has replaced gender and race as the new criteria by which a person is conferred the right to vote rather than by more relevant criteria such as residency or age. If the right to vote was based solely on residency or age it would not disturb the current structure of the government or take away from the voices of U.S. citizens. As the system currently stands, elected officials campaign on platforms that address issues such as education, infrastructure and taxation, among others. Non-citizen residents of Stamford care about those issues too, so incorporating them into the electoral process would deepen the candidates’ understanding of the issues affecting Stamford.
Fortunately, voting laws are within the legislative power of state and local governments. There is no constitutional requirement for residents in a constituency to be citizens in order to be able to vote. Cities such as San Francisco have already taken steps to extend voting rights to non-citizens by allowing non-citizens to vote in school board elections. The city of Takoma Park, Maryland, has allowed non-citizens to fully participate in municipal elections for decades. New York City. allowed non-citizens to vote in school boards until elected school boards were disbanded in 2003. Even at the state level many states have historically allowed non-citizens to vote. This is because voting has nothing to do with citizenship. Voting is about making an informed decision about issues that are important to a particular community.
Stamford has been endowed with a large a population of hard-working, contributing non-citizen residents. They are responsible for much of the population growth and racial and linguistic diversity in Stamford. It is a rare for a mid-sized city to be as diverse and cosmopolitan as Stamford is. With such a great gift comes a great responsibility: Incorporating a group of individuals into a system that has excluded them for far too long. Stamford should begin to take steps in its legislature to change voting rules so that non-citizen residents in Stamford can have a voice in deciding who will be the next mayor and members of the elected boards, and even hold those positions themselves.
Michael Hernandez is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.