Opinion: Giving every resident a voice through the ballot box

Shennell McCloud | July 6, 2021 | Social, Opinion
We need to push elected leaders at the federal, state and local levels to protect and expand the right to vote to all
Shennell McCloud

Lately, it feels like every day, I wake up to news about how states are working to restrict access to voting while pushing a false narrative about election fraud.

Those of us who care about protecting the right to vote need to push elected leaders at the federal, state and local levels to make it easier, not harder, for every resident to make their voice heard through the ballot box.

What reforms are needed?

Let’s start with the reforms that should be easy:

First, it’s time to pass significant federal legislation to protect and expand the right to vote. While the fate of S-1 — the Senate bill that would protect Americans’ access to the ballot box, outlaw voter suppression, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants and implement other anti-corruption measures — is in peril after Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) announcement of opposition, there is still room to pass meaningful reform. It would be popular here in New Jersey. A recent poll of New Jerseyans showed that nearly two-thirds of voters support passage of S-1/HR-1.

Second, state leaders have made impressive progress on making voting more inclusive, most recently by passing a bill to legalize in-person early voting this spring. But there is still work to be done. It’s time for New Jersey to mail every voter a ballot in every election — which significantly increased turnout even during the pandemic — and institute same-day voter registration. For those voters who are not registered, it’s often too high a bar to expect them to register to vote before an arbitrary preelection deadline and then return to the polls to vote. Why not allow citizens to register to vote and then cast their ballot on the same day, as 20 other states do? These are reforms that Trenton should take up this year, ahead of the gubernatorial election.

Finally, I want to discuss an idea that could meaningfully increase turnout on the local level. Several cities, including San Francisco, have moved to allow all residents — including those who aren’t yet citizens — to vote in local school board elections. The rationale behind the policy is simple yet compelling: These residents live and work in our communities, and they send their children to our schools. They deserve a voice in electing the people who make decisions about their children’s education.

The history of noncitizen voting isn’t quite as clear-cut as you might think. At the country’s founding, voting was restricted to white, male property owners, but citizenship wasn’t required, and the Constitution does not require it. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the movement to prevent noncitizens from voting picked up in a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment following the War of 1812 and a surge of immigration from Europe.

As of 2018, just 12 cities have allowed noncitizens the right to vote. Chicago has allowed noncitizens to vote in school council elections and serve on school councils since 1989, though they cannot vote in school board elections. San Francisco opened up school board elections to noncitizens in 2018. The remaining cities where noncitizens can vote are all in Maryland, where cities and towns can adopt the policy without seeking state legislative approval. Other cities with progressive leadership — like Boston and Portland, Maine — have floated the idea but run into roadblocks in their state legislatures.

Noncitizens voting in school board elections

Would there be support for such a proposal in New Jersey’s largest city, Newark? A recent poll answered that question with a definitive “yes.” In fact, 82% of Newarkers support allowing all parents who have children in the school district to vote in school board elections, regardless of the parent’s immigration status.

I asked Raymond Ocasio, executive director of La Casa Don Pedro and a prominent advocate for immigrant rights in Newark, what he thought about the idea.

“A public school system in a democratic society has an obligation to afford every parent a voice in shaping the education of their children,” Ocasio told me. “That voice should not be denied to any parent who is a resident with a child in a district school including immigrant parents regardless of their status.”

The proposal also has support from the ACLU of New Jersey. According to Sarah Fajardo, its policy director, “Our immigrant friends, neighbors, and family members are active and valued participants and leaders in New Jersey communities, and the opportunity to participate in democratically electing school board representatives is a critical chance to weigh in on issues that directly impact families and individuals.”

Minimizing risks

As for my own opinion, I love the idea. It’s a creative, equity-centered approach. My only concern is that the policy needs to be implemented in a way that doesn’t put residents at risk. To register, people should have to submit their address and date of birth. In San Francisco, noncitizens were warned on their registration forms that information they provide to the elections department could be shared with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Those fears are at least part of the reason why only 42 people registered in the first election cycle after the policy was enacted.

That doesn’t mean this is a bad idea, though — just one that needs to have some kinks worked out of it. Here’s hoping that our leaders try to do just that.

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