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New York City Grants Non-citizens the Right to Vote in Local Elections

January 25, 2022
Marjorie M. Filice

Most non-US Citizens are not eligible to vote in any U.S Elections. Often, registering to vote, or voting, leads to an individual knowingly or unknowingly claiming to be a U.S. Citizen. Once a noncitizen falsely claims to be a U.S. citizen to obtain any benefit under U.S. federal or state law, the individual is no longer legally admissible to the U.S., meaning he or she cannot physically be admitted into the U.S. on a temporary visa or a green card. Additionally, the individual is not eligible to apply for a green card or naturalization, even if through marriage to a U.S. citizen spouse. However, the right to vote in some local elections has been granted to noncitizens in 15 US cities and towns.

Most recently and significantly, New York City has granted non-U.S. citizens the right to vote in local elections in New York City. This legislation, called “Our City, Our Vote,” was passed unanimously by the City Council and is set to take effect January 9, 2023. Under this new law, Permanent Residents and those with work authorization (including DACA recipients) who have lived in the city for at least 30 days will qualify to vote in local elections. The law has already been challenged by a group of Republicans who filed a lawsuit on January 10, 2022. Other cities that grant non-citizens the right to vote include Chicago, where noncitizens currently have the right to vote in school council elections, but not in other local elections. There is pending legislation to extend this right to the rest of Illinois. San Francisco also allows non-citizens to vote in school board elections only. As of June 2021, two cities in Vermont and 11 in Maryland, have granted noncitizens the right to vote in city elections.

While the new legislation grants a voice in local elections to an estimated 800,000 residents of New York City, it is important to note that this does not apply to state or federal elections. Although registering to vote or voting in an election where non-U.S. citizens are eligible to do so is not an immigration violation, non-U.S. citizens must be sure that they are not asserting that they are in fact U.S. citizen or voting in an election that requires citizenship. As mentioned above, doing so can result in a false claim to U.S. citizenship, even if it was done inadvertently.

USCIS Updated Policy on Registering to Vote though a Driver License or other State Benefit Application: 

In addition to new laws allowing non-citizens to vote in some local elections, many states have also incorporated voter registration into applications for a driver’s license. The merging of these applications has been a source of confusion for noncitizens who may be eligible for driver’s licenses but not for voter registration and has historically led to many individuals facing severe immigration consequences. Fortunately, on May 27, 2021, USCIS has narrowly updated its harsh policy on applicants who have or may register to vote through a state’s benefit application. The updated policy clarifies:

  • That USCIS will not penalize an applicant who unknowingly or unwilfully registers to vote.
  • That USCIS does not consider an applicant to have unlawfully registered to vote if the applicant did not complete or sign the voter registration section (including electronic signature, if applicable) in the motor vehicle or other state benefit application.
  • That USCIS does not consider an applicant to have unlawfully claimed to be a U.S. citizen if the applicant did not affirmatively indicate that he or she is a U.S. citizen. However, if the applicant registered to vote, the applicant has the burden to prove that the registration form did not contain a question about whether the applicant is a U.S. citizen or that the applicant did not indicate, in response to the question, that he or she is a U.S. citizen.
  • That an applicant may be considered to have falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen for the purpose of registering to vote, and therefore may lack GMC because he or she committed an unlawful act in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1015(f), if the applicant knowingly answered “yes” to a question asking whether he or she was a U.S. citizen in order to register to vote. This may apply even if the applicant’s registration to vote was done simultaneously with the process of a driver’s license or ID card application, or an application for other state benefits.

If you have any questions about non-citizen voting or would like to learn more about becoming a U.S. citizen, please contact one of the attorneys at Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C.

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