Friday, July 2, 2021 file phtoto, A New York City Board of Election staff member, left, shows a ballot to a campaign observer as primary election absentee ballots are counted in New York.
( Mary Altaffer, File
Arun Venugopal: Hey, everyone. I'm Arun Venugopal, in from Melissa Harris-Perry today. This month a law went into effect in New York City that maybe sounds like a game changer for immigrant rights activists. It grants roughly 800,000 immigrants the right to vote in local city elections. Mayor Eric Adams initially expressed some skepticism over allowing non-citizens who had lived in the city for just 30 days to be covered under the measure, but ultimately he chose not to veto the bill. Here he is speaking about it with CNN's Jake Tapper earlier this month.
Mayor Eric Adams: "In New York City, just Brooklyn, for example, 47% of Brooklynite speak a language other than English at home when I was a borough president. I think it's imperative that people who are in a local municipality have the right to decide who's going to govern them, and I support the overall concept of that bill."
Arun Venugopal: Again, while this feels like a momentous piece of legislation, Democrats have not been outspoken about it at the national level, even as their inaction over federal voting rights has dominated Washington, DC this month. Part of the reason why congressional Democrats in the White House are not cheering on the measure may be over concerns that it could lead to conservative backlash in other parts of the country, areas where immigrant rights don't have the same level of support.
Russell Berman is a staff writer at The Atlantic covering politics, and he recently wrote about the new law.
Russell Berman: New York is an immigrant city, especially in New York City where unfortunately voter turnout is fairly low. Even a modest increase in voting in certain districts, especially in Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx could have a big impact on city council races and other local offices. That was something that was raised in the debate. It has caused some tension, particularly with African Americans who are worried and nervous that the Democratic majority leader of the City Council, Laurie Cumbo, voted against it because she suggested that non-citizens would dilute the vote of Black New Yorkers. It should have an impact in New York if it is upheld by the courts.
Arun Venugopal: This is a big deal, obviously, not just because it's New York of all cities is doing it, but because it's relatively rare in this country, but that wasn't the case earlier in American history. Correct?
Russell Berman: That's right. For the first half of American history in most states, non-citizens could vote in certain elections. Now, obviously, there are a lot of people who should have been citizens who are not allowed to vote during that period of time, but only in the last really 100 years or so has it been really out of the mainstream. I think the last state to change its laws to ban non-citizens from voting was in the early part of the 20th century.
Arun Venugopal: Right, and now we have a situation where these local Democrats have pushed through this law, but you have a lot of ambivalence higher up the chain, don't you? From say, congressional Democrats who generally have not been particularly vocal.
Russell Berman: That's right. I think it's been very interesting that if you look at it in one way, we're having this big national debate about voting rights, and this is perhaps the largest expansion of voting rights by numbers that we've seen in some time, and you hear really nothing about it from the National Democratic Party. President Biden hasn't talked about it, even powerful Democrats in New York like Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand have had very little if anything to say about it.
Even staunch advocates in the city for immigrant rights like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has not talked about it. Part of the reason obviously is that this only impacts local elections in New York City so it wouldn't change the balance of power in Albany or in Washington in any way, but you can see how just the fact that they haven't talked about it signals that this is just a debate that they're not ready to have.
Arun Venugopal: How do you explain that?
Russell Berman: Well, just look at the politicization of immigration policy over the last decade, two decades, you have Republicans who are quite willing to talk about this because they think this is a winning issue for them, even though it's only occurring in New York City and only in local elections. One, they filed a lawsuit that Republican National Committee as well as Republicans in New York stop this, but they want to use it to attack Democrats in congressional races by saying, look, this is the future that liberals want. If they get power, they are going to give non-citizens the right to vote. They're going to dilute your vote if you're a citizen, and they're going to try to do that nationally, even though, obviously, as I mentioned, there's no indication that they want to.
Arun Venugopal: There are pro-immigrant advocates who argue that this law wouldn't just hurt the Democratic Party, but it could hurt immigrants themselves. How so?
Russell Berman: Well, there are a couple of concerns that were raised to me. One is in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, this issue has been stalled in Congress for many years. What you have is a bifurcated policy, a polarization in which the blue states and blue cities are aggressively trying to expand rights for immigrants both undocumented and legal permanent residents, and you have red states that are restricting those rights.
You have laws like the one we saw several years ago in Arizona, that so-called "show me your papers" law. The concern here is that in this sort of tit for tat battle that is playing out in states and cities, the further that New York City goes to the left on this issue, you're going to see Republicans in states like Arizona or Florida or North Carolina, or any of these states where they really control power, they are going to respond and retaliate essentially by passing laws that restrict rights for immigrants, and those are in places where these immigrants do not have the political power that they do in New York.
The other concern locally in New York that could become a national issue is that the implementation of this matter. It's going to be up to the New York City Board of Elections, which is not an institution renowned for administrative conferences as we've seen in the recent past. They are going to have to implement this law. They're going to have to in some cases when you have years where there's local elections on the ballot, as well as state and federal elections, they're going to have to print separate ballots for non-citizens, and they're going to have to make sure that non-citizens only vote in those local elections.
If even unwittingly, non-citizens because of confusion or because of mistakes, if they unwittingly vote in an election that they're not legally able to vote in, that's a crime, and they could be subject to deportation. One advocate said, are we sending these people in to commit crimes because not necessarily any fault of their own, but if poll workers don't know the law, if the Board of Elections messes this up, then of course, if that happens on any mass scale, it's going to add fuel to the fire of the Republican argument that really it's not based in fact, but this argument about voter fraud. If you have fraudulent voting in New York City because this law is a mess, then that's going to become a national issue very quickly. Some of those fears might be exaggerated, but those are some of the concerns that were mentioned to me.
Arun Venugopal: Russell Berman is a staff writer at The Atlantic covering politics. Thanks so much, Russell.
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