Residents, Citizens and the Franchise

By Gordon T. Davis

Until relatively recently, residency was the only requirement for people to vote in state and local elections in some states in America.

There has always been a requirement of citizenship for people to vote in federal elections.

At the turn of last century, 40 states had laws allowing non-citizen residents to vote.  By the early 1920s, no state allowed non-citizen residents to vote. 

The disenfranchisement of non-citizens is thought by some to be a reaction to immigrant workers coming to the USA. To a certain extent it was also a reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as seen in the so called Palmer Raids and deportations of radicals such as Emma Goldman.

It is time to take another look at the franchise for non-citizen residents of Massachusetts.

There are at least three Massachusetts cities that have sent home rule petitions to the Massachusetts legislature that would have allowed non-citizen residents to vote in City Council and School Committee elections. They are: Newton, Cambridge and Amherst.

The legislature failed to act on these home rule petitions.  These Massachusetts cities did not have a majority “minority” population or majority minority school enrollment.

Cities such as Worcester, Lowell and Southbridge could likely benefit from the allowance of non-citizen residents voting, as they have an increasingly rising percentage of immigrant population.

This implies that their city governments do not reflect in a true manner the population of their respective city.

Worcester, for example, has a large, relatively older population that has fewer children in the school system. For them, the Worcester Public Schools might seem to be a drain on their taxes instead of an essential part of the fabric of our city/society.

Many parents of children in the Worcester Public Schools are immigrant, permanent residents who can’t vote the aspirations of their children.

Although the school committee has not shown any overt biases on this matter, sometimes it seems to me that it struggles understanding the issues facing the immigrant population.

Besides the moral fiber of our city being positively enhanced by non citizen residents voting in local election there are other persuasive arguments in its favor: The first is that the non citizen resident is being taxed without being able to have the same voice as other tax payers. There should be not taxation without representation. The second reason is that the franchise encourages non citizen residents to participate more fully in the community.

It has been made clear by many to me that they don’t want non citizens to vote in local elections. Some of these anti-resident franchise people are part of a movement to remove the franchise from citizens by means of voter ID laws, voter suppression and voter intimidation. This has especially adverse impacts in some of the minority communities in which people with a  CORI have been permanently disenfranchised, even though they are citizens.

If a home rule petition to allow non citizen residents to vote in local elections is to have a chance of passage in the Massachusetts legislature there will have to be collaboration by people in the Massachusetts cities with a relatively high immigrant population: Worcester, Chelsea and more.

Ironically, the collaborators would have to resort to rallies, marches, sit-ins – tactics similar to those used by women suffragettes. This battle will more than likely be won in the streets instead of the State House.

Even if the respective home rule petition fails, the collaboration will likely have a positive effect and improve Massachusetts’ image world-wide. Our state will be seen as a global place, not restricted by what seems at times to be the unreasonable restrictions of nationalism and reaction.