Boston City Councilors began to lay out a plan to allow immigrants with legal status to vote in municipal elections, wondering how to finesse around the pesky state Legislature.
“Non-citizens with legal status live here,” said Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune. “They participate in our schools, pay taxes, are members of this body politic and should be able to exercise their right to vote on the matters that matter most to them.”
As of this year, 15 municipalities allow non-citizens to vote, Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said, including New York City and San Francisco. If Boston follows suit, upwards of 40,000 immigrants would be able to vote in local elections, speakers estimated.
With the recent successful council vote to lower the municipal election voting age to 16 and the statewide support for driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status, councilors said, the previously unsuccessful proposal may now stand a shot.
But there are likely to be hefty barriers — including state Legislature abyss.
“Just based on how unsuccessful some home rule petitions have been up at the State House, if there is a way to do this by city ordinance, I would like to move that forward,” said Councilor
Gabriela Coletta. “If there is a will to do this in the city, we should move forward without getting any permission from the state.”
The city ordinance may leave more room for legal challenges, said Jacob Love, a staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights. Coletta said addressing the legal challenge may be simpler than moving the petition through the Legislature.
“We already know what happens when things go to the State House — they die,” echoed Councilor Julia Mejia.
The recent ordinances of this kind are not without historical precedent, said Harvard professor and voting rights researcher Alex Keyssar. Despite common misunderstanding, Keyssar said, non-citizens have had the right to vote even in state and federal elections for periods throughout the country’s history.
Councilor Kendra Lara, sponsor of the proposal, said her office has looked into who has standing to mount a legal challenge if the measure were to pass.
Like for many Bostonians, Lara said, she has a personal connection to the issue.
“(My father) has spent over 30 years in this country, working, paying taxes, sending us to school, putting us through college and watching us pour all of our gifts back into our communities,” said Lara. “But last year when his youngest daughter ran for public office, he couldn’t cast his vote. … I’m excited to continue this conversation.”
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