New York City Council Passes Voting Rights for Foreign Nationals in Local Elections
FAIR Take | December 2021
On December 9, despite considerable bipartisan opposition, the New York City Council passed the so-called “Our City Our Vote” bill giving foreign nationals the right to vote for city offices and on city ballot questions.
Currently, only a small number of localities in Maryland and Vermont allow foreign national voting in local elections. Under this bill, New York City becomes the largest municipality in the country to allow foreign-national voting.
The bill, 1867-2020, sponsored by Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) would direct the city’s board of elections to create separate voter rolls and separate municipal-only ballots for foreign national voting. Eligible foreign nationals would be allowed to register to vote starting on December 9, 2022, and to vote as early as January 9, 2023. They would not be eligible to vote in state or federal races.
In addition to Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs or “green card holders”), the bill would allow anyone “authorized to work in the United States, who has been a resident of New York City, … for 30 consecutive days or longer” to register to vote in municipal elections. Estimates are that the bill would make roughly 808,000 people eligible to vote, which is slightly under 10% of the city’s total population.
While the bill does not make illegal aliens eligible to register or vote, it makes it easier for them. This is especially true since New York passed the Green Light Law authorizing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens and it lacks voter ID laws.
At the council meeting on December 9, Councilmember Mark Gjonaj (D-Bronx), moved to send the bill back to committee for further review. He said, “[t]his bill in its current form doesn’t protect New York City; it makes it vulnerable to outside influence … It doesn’t take much to … figure out how dangerous this bill is for the future of New York City … This bill … is a threat to our sovereignty.” He implored the Council to increase the 30-day residency requirement to a year.
Gjonaj’s motion was rejected and after several more hours of heated debate, the bill passed by a vote of 33-14, with two members abstaining. All five of the Council’s Republican members opposed the bill and they were joined by nine Democrats.
Newly elected Councilmember Inna Vernikov (R-Brooklyn), a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Ukraine and an immigration attorney, called the bill “a “slap in the face” to immigrants who worked hard to earn their citizenship.” Councilmember Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) stated that “[i]t’s unconstitutional, under state law. It’s very clear … We do not have the legal authority to do this.”
City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn) also voted against the bill and asked whether it would dilute the votes of New York City’s African-American community in particular.
Most of the Council’s members are “lame ducks” who were term-limited and will no longer be in office in 2022. Moreover, the issue of foreign national voting was barely raised during the city’s most recent elections which took place in November.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has repeatedly expressed reservations about the bill. He has questioned the bill’s legality and “wants to make sure that citizenship is valued and is given its full weight.” He has previously said he thinks this issue would have to be decided at the state level. However, despite his concerns, he has stated that he will not veto the bill.
According to the city charter, if the bill is not signed or vetoed within 30 days of passage, it becomes law. Ironically, the 30-day timeline potentially runs into when Mayor-Elect Eric Adams (D) is sworn into office. While Adams has expressed some support for the bill, he was elected on a platform of restoring respect for the rule of law and he has qualms that the legislation may be an overreach.
The bill passed the Council with more than a two-thirds super-majority which means there are enough votes to override a mayoral veto. However, if it was vetoed, 18 votes would be needed to prevent the veto override. In this case, it would require four votes to flip.
If the bill does become law, City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) has indicated he plans to sue to keep it from going into effect. In addition to possible litigation, the city also has a signature petition process which could put the issue on the ballot for the voters to decide.