Segment from Pulling the Curtain

Foreign Affairs

Legal scholar and politician Jamie Raskin talks with Ed about the American tradition of giving non-citizens the vote. The American Backstory hosts then unpack why this would have been the case.

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BRIAN: One issue that keeps coming up this election cycle is that of voter fraud. Specifically, there’s a concern that non-US Citizens might be casting ballots that could swing the election. In the last couple of years, 34 states have introduced legislation to toughen voter ID laws. 30 states do have some ID requirements in place.

ED: But are new restrictions the only way to deal with non-citizens at election time? Jamie Raskin is a state senator from Maryland and a law professor at American University. And back in the 1990s, he was helping to redistrict the city of Takoma Park.

JAMIE RASKIN: When we were redrawing the city council district lines, we drew city council wards that had equal population within them. But even though they had equal population, there were double or even close to triple the number of voters in some districts as others. And when we looked at that, we thought it might be because there were a lot of kids. But it was really because there were a lot of non-citizens.

And so someone said, well, why don’t we redistrict according to the citizen population, which I remembered you couldn’t do, according to Supreme Court precedent. And then I said, well, why don’t we just give everybody the right to vote? And the other people on the task force said to me, well, can you do that? And I said, I’ve got no idea. And so that’s how I started to research whether it was OK to give non-citizens the right to vote in local elections.

And I determined– amazingly, very quickly– the Supreme Court had repeatedly signaled its acceptance of the practice. They said there was nothing remotely unconstitutional about it. It was essentially up to the states and the localities to decide according to state law. And then when I went back further, that’s when I found this incredible buried history that we have of non-citizens voting for most of the years that the country’s been in existence.

ED: Now, this came as a bit of a shock to us here at BackStory. So we wondered if Raskin would push the story back to the early years of America, to the late 1700s and the early 1800s.

JAMIE RASKIN: Most of the states were allowing people to vote if they met the other requirements. If they were white male property owners over the age of 21, it didn’t make any difference where they were born or what their formal nation-state citizenship was. And essentially, the argument for it was we want to welcome people to the country. We want to acculturate them as quickly as possible to democratic practices. We want to educate them about what it means to be a citizen. And so we should give them the right to vote.

ED: In allowing these propertied white male immigrants to vote, the states were saying this– these men have a stake in society. So we can rely on them to take this responsibility of voting seriously.

JAMIE RASKIN: I mean, non-citizen voting had a kind of conservative quality to it when the country began because to impose a citizenship requirement might have implied, quite dangerously, that the relevant criterion for voting was citizenship. And that, of course, extended much more broadly than the people who were being given the right to vote.

ED: It extended to people such as women and unpropertied white men and, in many places, free blacks. All these people were citizens, but they were not allowed to vote. Now, over the 19th century, in much of the country, male immigrants were treated much like other white males. But things began to change around World War I.

JAMIE RASKIN: When we started getting waves of immigration in the early 20th century, from swarthier southern European Mediterranean countries, when Italians came and Jews came and Greeks came and so on, suddenly people began to look askance at the practice of giving non-citizens the right to vote. And by the time you get to World War I, alien suffrage has basically vanished as a practice as states have imposed, either through constitutional provisions or state voting provisions, restrictions on aliens voting. So essentially, that’s where we see the widespread growth of citizenship requirements for voting, at least at the statewide level.

Now, I think that there’s an argument today for non-citizen voting, just at the local level, on the theory that I can have a neighbor who’s Canadian or Swedish or Guatemalan. And there’s a logic for not permitting people to vote in national elections because our national interests may conflict. But in terms of local elections, where we share the same interests in excellent public schools and efficient garbage collection, we should want people to be involved and to be engaged at that level.

So I just brought it to my hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland. And we had a really interesting series of discussions about it. And then there was a public referendum on it. And then the city council voted to change the charter. And so non-citizens have been able to vote in Takoma Park. And there are a number of municipalities in Maryland that allow non-citizens to vote just in local elections.


What’s funny is when you tell people that for most of American history non-citizens could vote, they’re astonished because the citizenship-alien distinction in voting seems to be kind of the most natural, hard-core pillar of democracy today, just like the notion that you had to be male to vote. That also seemed perfectly natural to people, just like the notion that you had to be white to vote.

But if you go back to the 1700s and 1800s, your citizenship was really not much on people’s minds.

ED: Jamie Raskin is a law professor at American University and a state senator in Maryland.

PETER: hosts, nowadays we simply assume that voting and citizenship map onto each other. In fact, you are a bad citizen if you don’t vote. Right?

BRIAN: Correct.

PETER: But in the early period, we’re talking about different things. The classic apple, the classic orange. I mean, there was no way the framers of the Constitution could have had a single, universally-acceptable standard for voting. So it had to be left to the states.

ED: Wow.

PETER: And the result is– and this is, I think, the key thing– there is enormous opportunity in the electoral system for what we would say is gaming the system. You can change the law on the state level. There’s nothing unconstitutional or illegal about this. You go for it.

BRIAN: And Peter, why did people go for letting all these immigrants vote?

PETER: Well, there are many reasons for this. One is you want to build population. This is an immigrant-starved period in which the shortfall between American promise and American power is in the failure to have a growing economy and a growing population. So you’ve got to build it.

BRIAN: So if you’re sitting out there in Kentucky or even farther west, and you want to become a state, you need to attract people. And one of the ways you attract them is say, hey, you can vote out here.

PETER: Yeah. And listen, when you come to America in this period, people aren’t checking you out. You’re not a terrorist. You’ve made a lifetime commitment. You’re here. And you’re here partly because of what you take to be opportunity in the broadest sense– that’s economic and personal, but it’s also civic. This idea that this is a place where you can come and make a good life, that’s very attractive. That’s part of the whole boosterism of American immigration encouragement.

ED: Yeah, Peter. Boy, that’s a Jeffersonian vision as America as one giant farm that needs labor. On the other hand, let’s think about what happens in the 1840s and the 1850s when the festering sores that are cities begin filling up with all these immigrants from Ireland and Germany.

PETER: That’s why you said, go west, young man. Get out of here.

ED: Yeah, exactly. But there you see the opportunism that you’re talking about becomes sort of encoded in party identity. The Whigs say, oh, no, no, no, no. You learn to read first, learn to speak our language, perhaps get a job, adopt our religion.

BRIAN: Drink teak.

ED: Then you can vote. The Democrats say, hell, yeah. Come on in.

BRIAN: Have a drink.

ED: Yeah, that’s right, and vote right now. And so in many ways, the defining identity of the first great American party system of the Democrats and Whigs is defined by their attitude toward these immigrants and voting. Would you agree with that, Peter?

PETER: Yeah, I think it’s true, though there are soft Whigs on the edge who understand that they might forfeit, for instance, the Catholic vote, the Irish vote, if they have strong nativist, anti-immigrant policies. So there’s always this tension, not only between parties– which you’re exactly right– but it’s within parties, as well.

ED: So what you see is that none of this is just a generalized attitude toward immigrants. It’s all embodied in particular political parties and particular purposes of populating the west or of controlling a city or of controlling the country. So the North is very much more open to this than the South because they actually have immigrants. So what you see is the relationship between voting and immigrants is constantly changing as both those parts of the equation change.