Why noncitizens should be given the right to vote

President Trump claims California allowed millions of noncitizens to vote in the 2016 elections. This allegation, while totally bogus, has put California on the defensive as Trump and his allies use the lie to justify a new federal commission devoted to making it harder for all Americans to vote.

Californians should go on offense — by embracing Trump’s ugly lie and transforming it into a beautiful civic truth. Let’s make our state more democratic — by guaranteeing California’s noncitizens the right to vote in local and state elections.

Sounds radical, right? It’s not. In this country, there is no constitutional prohibition against noncitizens voting; states decide who gets to vote. For most of American history, voting by noncitizens was commonplace. Given Trump’s threats both to immigrants and democracy, Californians should seize this moment to give the franchise back to noncitizens.

California is home to about 5 million adults (or 1 in 6 California adults) who can’t vote because they’re not citizens. This huge disenfranchised cohort is an affront to American principles. Taxation without representation? Noncitizens pay taxes, but they are not represented. Consent of the governed? Noncitizens must follow our laws — but they can’t vote to consent. Home of the brave? Noncitizens serve in the military but can’t vote for the government that sends them to war. Family values? Noncitizens can’t vote even though they are parents and legal representatives to millions of U.S. citizens.

We Californians tolerate this form of apartheid, even though the lesser status of noncitizens — especially the 2 million-plus undocumented Californians — makes them more vulnerable to abuse and removal from the country they’ve helped build. To its credit, California has taken steps on behalf of noncitizens, who now enjoy in-state tuition to our public universities, driver’s licenses, the ability to practice the law, and — if they are children — state-funded health care.

But none of this is enough. All Californians won’t be equal until all have that great democratic weapon: the vote. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”

Americans tell themselves that our country’s story is one of extending the franchise over time — to African Americans, women, 18-year-olds. But noncitizens had the vote, and lost it.

From the founding through the 20th century, noncitizens voted in dozens of states. The vote was a lure for settlers and part of the assimilation process. What better way to educate yourself in civic traditions than by voting? But the coming of World War I produced an anti-immigrant backlash. By 1926, every state had banned noncitizen voting.

Such voting continues today in only limited local form. Some Maryland cities, New York, Chicago, and (as of 2016) San Francisco allow noncitizens to vote in certain local elections. And in recent decades, as global migration surged, two dozen countries established voting rights for noncitizens.

And even here, U.S. Supreme Court precedent is clear; states can let noncitizens vote if they choose. While Congress explicitly outlawed noncitizen voting in federal elections, the door remains open for local and state elections.

California should walk through that door.

Noncitizen voting would not only express our commitment to universal suffrage and to providing vulnerable people more democratic power to defend themselves. It also would make the voting population, now older and whiter than the state, more representative.

By the same token, the arguments against enfranchising noncitizens make little sense. Noncitizens don’t constitute some distinct or isolated group that doesn’t understand the rest of us; they are a diverse array of people by origin, class and education. Many have spent decades here.

Establishing noncitizen voting might require a new governor; Jerry Brown has opposed the idea. And in our era of mass deportation, undocumented Californians might be reluctant to register.

But that shouldn’t stop us from enfranchising noncitizen Californians who have spent at least five years here. The easiest way to do that is to permit voting only in local elections. Allowing noncitizens to vote also in state elections would escalate our war with the federal government, because voting for federal representatives is conducted at the state level.

But escalation is inevitable. Trump will lie about California and its voting practices, whether we let noncitizens vote or not. So why not do the right thing?

California’s position should be clear: Universal suffrage means universal suffrage. If America is going to call itself a democracy, there ought to be at least one state in this country that is an actual democracy.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters.

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