Local officials clashed Monday as they debated a proposal to give many non-citizen New Yorkers with legal permanent residency the right to vote in local elections. With 35 city council members now sponsoring the legislation, support in the council is strong — but the hearing highlighted major obstacles the bill could face if it passes the City Council and is sent to the Mayor’s office for signature.
City council members, immigrant advocates and members of the public deliberated and testified about the bill, known as the Our City Our Vote legislation, which would grant nearly one million more people the local right to vote. The bill, Intro. 1867, is likely to pass in the City Council as it already has well beyond the support of the 26 members needed to to pass.
But the legislation’s biggest hurdle could be Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made clear already that he does not believe the bill is legal. On Friday, Mayor de Blasio said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show said he had “mixed feelings” about the proposed legislation, and questions about the legality of the bill were brought up several times on Monday’s hearing, both by members of the mayor’s administration and councilmembers who opposed the bill.
The bill, Intro. 1867, would extend local voting rights to legal permanent residents and people with work authorization who have been living in New York City for more than 30 days, though they still would not be able to vote in state or federal elections. The legislation was first introduced to the City Council in January of 2020 by Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, a Democrat who represents Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, and it gained a super majority in June, when the City’s immigrants had been lauded as essential, yet excluded, workers helping New York through the pandemic crisis.
On Monday, speakers at the virtual hearing were often somber and frustrated. Rodriguez, who was a green card holder himself for nearly two decades, nodded to the lengthy battle activists have been fighting for years to try and give non-citizens the right to vote in local elections. “This is about no taxation without representation,” Rodriguez said. “If they paid their taxes as I did when I had green card, then they should have a right to elect their local leaders.”
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Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President and the Democratic nominee for New York Mayor in the upcoming November election, submitted a written testimony for the City Council hearing, urging the passage of the bill, taking a clear stance in supporting the right for noncitizens mentioned in the bill to vote. In a democracy, Adams said, there is “nothing more fundamental than the right to and to have a say in who represents you and your community in elected office.” Still, he noted almost one million individuals are “denied this foundational right.”
Councilman Kalman Yeger, a Democrat who represents District 44, which includes parts of Bensonhurst, Borough Park and Midwood, said that although he recognizes that New York City is a city of immigrants and he strongly supports officials helping people in pathways to citizenship, he believed that the bill would violate the New York State Constitution. Therefore, he said, he thought that the City Council was “not allowed” to pass the bill. “The question before us, in my view, is not whether this is the right thing to do or whether this is the wrong thing to do,” he said. “The question is whether we — as New York City Council — have the legal authority to do this.”
Other council members have also made public comments about strongly opposing the bill, including Councilman Robert Holden (Democrat of Queens), who recently said on the radio show Cats at Night with John Catsimatidis that the “bill is ridiculous” and that it was “questionable whether this is even legal,” adding that he believed it could face challenges in court.
Representatives for Mayor de Blasio’s administration said at the hearing that the New York State constitution says that “citizens” have the right to vote in New York State, which applies to local offices, according to Laura Wood, the chief democracy officer for the Mayor’s office, who spoke at the hearing.
Advocates, in turn, rejected this notion, saying that the constitution establishes that citizens have the right to vote — but it doesn’t bar non-citizens from voting. “It doesn’t say that non-citizens immigrants, with working papers and green cards cannot have the right to vote,” Rodriguez said.
The idea of allowing lawful permanent residents to vote is not a new one. At least ten municipalities currently allow non-citizens to vote, though none on a scale as massive as New York City. Non-citizens in New York City were previously able to vote in school board elections between 1968 and 2003, when school boards were considered outside local government, according to a report from The City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
Councilman Stephen Levin, who was serving as chair of the committee, noted that the days of this same mayoral administration and council were “waning,” while addressing Wood and members of Mayor de Blasio’s administration.
In January, Levin said, a new administration and new city council members will take their seats — and if the bill is not pushed forward by then, it would have to be re-introduced and a new sponsor would have to be found. “Everything resets,” Levin said.
Levin, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, asked pointed questions of members of Mayor de Blasio’s administration who were at the hearing about passing the bill. “Do you want to do this?” He said. “Does this administration want to do this bill and work with the council to get this bill passed in the remaining three months that we have here—because it’s kind of now or never. I mean at least for us.”
After this public hearing, the bill then has to pass the New York City council with a majority vote, and will then be sent to the Mayor, who has 30 days to either sign the bill into law, veto it, or take no action. Even though the bill has garnered strong support, Monday’s debate at the hearing highlighted that the legislation could face stark obstacles, in the form of legal challenges and other opposition.