Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States

Ron Hayduk, Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

This seems like two books. The first is an informed and impassioned effort to plug the black hole in our memory about the extensive role that noncitizen immigrant voting has played in our past. As Hayduk reminds us, “The idea that noncitizens should have the vote is older and has been practiced longer than the idea that they should not.” Historical memory is a powerful weapon that can be used to sustain the status quo or to knock it off its foundations. Hayduk hopes that by regaining the knowledge we have lost, we will be motivated to act politically to expand the hidden tradition of noncitizen voting, thereby strengthening democracy and, with it, a progressive political agenda. The book’s second half, based partly on lessons from Hayduk’s own activism, is a detailed look at the few places in the US where noncitizens can already vote in local elections, and at the campaigns now underway to extend the suffrage to noncitizens in other areas.

Hayduk is following in an important tradition. Fifty years ago, when the civil rights movement was gathering steam in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott, white Southern conservatives argued that the South needed its supposedly long-standing traditions of racial separation for social stability. Many northern moderates bought this argument and urged civil rights activists to go slow. But historian C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow undercut this line of reasoning, showing how racial separation was not an unbroken tradition in the South, but rather was instituted by law at the end of the 19th century –- in response to the Populist revolt and the Southern political elite’s fears that poor whites would and poor blacks make common cause over economic issues. The formalizing of white privilege through segregation aimed to block class solidarity.

A similar threat of class solidarity was posed in relation to immigrants. The forgotten reality is that until the end of the 19th century, when increased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe stirred racial anxieties, noncitizens could often vote in local and even state elections. In fact, they could vote in about 40 states at one time or another, for a variety of local and state offices. It was almost the American way.

Hayduk builds his historical account of noncitizen voting by extending Alexander Keyssar’s landmark work on the history of American suffrage, The Right to Vote. Keyssar stressed the non-linear progress toward a more democratic suffrage, with the tide shifting along with the political issues current at the time. The progression and regression of noncitizen voting, Hayduk shows, followed a similar pattern. It was often a function of the anxieties of political elites, who worked to restrict the suffrage whenever an expanded electorate threatened to dislodge them from office.

Neither the Constitution nor court decisions prevent noncitizen voting, Hayduk reminds us. When the nation came into being in the 1770s, residence, not naturalization determined whether one could vote -– at least for white males who owned a specified amount of real property. But the conflict with Britain and especially France in the late 1790s, leading to the Alien and Sedition Acts and the War of 1812, caused a reaction to set in. Rising national consciousness put a greater premium on notions of loyalty and defined foreigners as the “other.” Many states made citizenship a qualification for voting. However, settlers had to be attracted to new territories and the franchise was one inducement to get new immigrants to move to them. In many cases they could even hold office without becoming a citizen. For a few decades, many states would adopt what came to be known as the Wisconsin 1848 Formula: noncitizen immigrants could vote if they declared their intention to become a citizen.

The end of the 19th century saw noncitizen voting restricted in response to increased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and domestic economic and social conditions similar to those engendering segregation in the South: “Such disenfranchising measures were promoted and enacted by powerful economic and political elites just when the potential for working-class constituencies, progressive social movements and third party mobilizations was growing.” World War I, the postwar Red Scare and the anti-immigrant sentiment that followed in the 1920s -– not to mention the Depression, World War II and McCarthyism — all but drove the idea of noncitizen voting underground.

In the second half of the book, Hayduk describes the revival of noncitizen voting, albeit on a very small scale, in our time. He discusses the increase in immigration since quotas were eased in the 1960s; the significant number of noncitizen immigrants concentrated in many areas of the country; the increase in time it now takes to become a citizen -– since 9/11, as much as a decade or longer — and thus the effective disenfranchising of a significant percentage of our population; the experience of noncitizen voting in places such as Takoma Park (Maryland), Chicago, and New York City; and attempts by various coalitions of activists to extend the franchise to noncitizens in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The statistics are dramatic and sobering: Close to 20 percent of California’s population consists of noncitizens –- in Los Angeles, almost a third of the population. “How can a polity call itself democratic,” Hayduk asks, “if one-fifth of the population is formally excluded from political participation?”

Hayduk’s account of current noncitizen voting and the prospect of significantly expanding it any time soon, though, is less convincing than his historical discussion. In fact, there have been few advances in noncitizen voting in recent years, and future prospects are dim. Hayduk’s few success stories involve localities such as Takoma Park and New York City, where noncitizen voting for local school boards is now irrelevant with the boards’ recent loss of power. In fact, these lonely bastions of liberalism are exceptions even among liberal areas. Campaigns for noncitizen voting have so far failed in San Francisco, while in Cambridge and Amherst Massachusetts, supporters have failed to sway the state government to enact the required enabling legislation. If it can’t make it there…

Hayduk recognizes the need for coalitions to push for widening of the franchise, especially in the present political atmosphere that is hardly friendly to immigrant rights. But he is, I think, too optimistic about the current possibilities of large-scale cooperation between African-Americans and Latinos on this issue, which is really the heart of the matter.

Hayduk’s analysis of the campaign in New York, where he is co-founder of the Immigrant Voting Project as well as a political scientist at the City University, is to the point: “The prospect of enfranchising a million mostly working class people of color has profound political implications. Indeed, the campaign for noncitizen voting lays bare the self-interests of the political players involved: political allies of immigrants would likely gain additional votes, and immigrant advocates and noncitizen communities would gain more influence. Opponents fear that immigrant voters would vote against them.”

What is the social base for such opposition? What do immigrant-rights activists have to overcome? Clearly there is the fear of “aliens” and the economic and cultural consequences of not only letting them in but also letting them vote without first becoming citizens. Yet Hayduk’s ample quotes from opponents of noncitizen voting also suggest an undercurrent of connections to powerful social and political resentments that are too seldom mentioned by those who write about immigrant rights. Repeatedly one finds the puritanical notion that immigrants should have to work for, earn and deserve the rights that come with citizenship, not be handed them like welfare. And there is the unintentionally perceptive reaction, full of social resonance, of Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigrant Studies, who opposes noncitizen voting because “they need to earn the right to vote by formally buying into America, by getting married to America, if you will, by way of citizenship, rather than just living together….”

Reservations aside, any activism that creates resistance to the current anti-democratic zeitgeist is welcome. And in so effectively illuminating a useful part of our past, Hayduk has performed a vital service for us all. That alone makes Democracy For All a must read.

Reviewed by Gene Brown
Independent journalist/scholar

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