The New York City Council passed legislation on Thursday that would extend voting rights to certain non-citizen New Yorkers in municipal elections. The passage comes after more than a decade of advocacy from a coalition of immigrant rights organizations and elected officials.
While New York City is not the nation’s first locality to grant voting rights to non-citizens, it’s poised to become the largest big city to do so, giving some 900,000 legal permanent residents a say in selecting their local representatives.
Supporters trumpeted the bill’s passage as a sign that New York City is expanding its democracy while efforts to restrict voting rights are moving ahead elsewhere on city, state, and federal levels. Opponents of the city council’s measure raised concerns about its legality. They also said it would shift power between different ethnic communities and raised the specter of election interference by bad actors.
The bill, Intro 1867a, passed by a vote of 33 to 14, with 2 abstentions. That is just shy of a supermajority of the 51 member Council, which means Mayor Bill de Blasio could still veto the legislation. If enacted, the law would grant residents with green cards or those with work authorization who have lived in the city for at least 30 days the right to register to vote for their local representatives, including mayor, public advocate, comptroller, city council, and borough president.
“In a time where many states are passing voter suppression laws like we haven't seen since the Jim Crow era,” said Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s lead sponsor, “New York City must be seen as a shining example for other progressive cities to follow.”
Opponents of the bill attempted to delay the vote by making a motion to return it to committee for additional review. The motion was made by City Councilmember Mark Gjonaj, a moderate Democrat from the Bronx who is leaving the Council at the end of the year. Among his concerns was the 30-day residency provision, which he argued was not long enough.
“That person is a transient,” Gjonaj said, defending his motion. He suggested the bill should be amended to say residents must be in the city for at least a year and a day. He also invoked recent reports of election interference at the federal level, warning that the city’s measure could open the door to nefarious activity in municipal elections.
“This bill in its current form, doesn't protect New York City or make it fairer, it makes it vulnerable to outside influence, whether that be Russia or China or any other nationality that does not share the same principles and freedom and values that we do as Americans,” he added.
“Where do African American voters fit in?” said Councilmember Laurie Cumbo of Brooklyn, a close ally of Mayor-elect Eric Adams. She raised concerns that legislation would take power away from the city’s Black community.
“This particular legislation is going to shift the power dynamics in New York City in a major way and we do not have the numbers or the information to know how that is going to impact African American communities who have been the most vulnerable in their existence in New York City,” she added.
After more than an hour of debate, the motion to kick the bill back to committee failed by a vote of 35 to 14. Then, in a second roll call vote, the legislation passed.
The bill now goes to Mayor de Blasio’s desk. While he has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the legality of the measure, he has also vowed not to veto it.
Advocates hope de Blasio signs the bill before leaving office at the end of the month, but if he does not, it would be awaiting action from the incoming administration of Mayor-elect Eric Adams. Despite stating support for the measure, Adams raised some last-minute concerns ahead of the vote on Thursday.
“What I’m concerned about in the bill are aspects of it: being here for 30 days and allowed to vote, we need to look at that,” Adams told reporters after announcing his pick for Schools Chancellor. He also questioned whether those impacted by the bill should be able to vote citywide, or just in contests limited to certain neighborhoods.
Despite the uncertain future of the measure, advocates said Thursday’s vote is a major victory.
At a rally ahead of the vote, supporters who would be directly impacted by the legislation talked about how the law would affect their life. Among those was Melissa John, a green card holder and a teacher at a public school in the Bronx. She came to the city from Trinidad and Tobago as an undergraduate nearly 20 years ago.
“I can unequivocally say today, I’m finally being seen,” John said. “I'm finally being heard as part of the political process.”