A New York City law that would allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections faces yet another legal challenge, this time in federal court.
The Public Interest Legal Foundation, an Indiana-based conservative legal group, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of four local Black registered voters who contend that the law is racially discriminatory in violation of federal election law.
The challenge to Local Law 11, which was adopted by the City Council in December and became law in January, comes after a New York state judge ruled the measure violates the state constitution, casting its future in doubt for unrelated reasons. The city has vowed to appeal.
Jerry Goldfeder, a lawyer who represents the Board of Elections, says he’s unsure why PILF opted to file another lawsuit after the judge struck down the law. He said, “You can only kill a person once.”
PILF’s federal lawsuit is “completely different” than the ongoing state case because it’s about discrimination, PILF spokeswoman Lauren Bowman said in a statement. “New York City Councilmembers made explicit statements that this was about race,” she continued. “You cannot do that in our country."
Local Law 11 would allow roughly 1 million noncitizen residents who are authorized to live and work in the city the right to participate in local elections, as a handful of municipalities across the nation permit, including in Maryland and California. A U.S. law bars noncitizens from voting in federal elections.
While the New York City measure doesn’t explicitly mention race, according to the complaint, its proponents asserted racially discriminatory aims: to shift electoral power to Hispanic and Asian voters, who would gain electoral power, and diminish the strength of Black voters and other racial groups.
PILF, as reported earlier in The City, recently filed the complaint in federal court after a state judge dismissed a very similar challenge the group pursued earlier this year.
According to reports by Reuters and The New Yorker, PILF’s leaders have been among a cadre of lawyers who have stoked unfounded fears of election fraud across the country and backed former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen. In reply to the press reports, Bowman said in a statement that read in part, “The Public Interest Legal Foundation is a nonprofit, public interest law firm dedicated exclusively to election integrity. Fears of election crimes are not baseless."
An earlier ruling
The city law has been on life support even without PILF’s intervention.
In late June, state Supreme Court Justice Ralph Porzio ruled the law violated both the state constitution and state election laws, which only explicitly extend voting rights to citizens. That challenge was brought by a group led by Vito Fossella, the Republican Staten Island borough president.
Porzio wrote that the only way to extend voting rights to noncitizens is by referendum. In July, the city filed notice it would appeal Porzio’s injunction putting Local Law 11 on hold.
Amid a national tug-of-war over voting rights – with legislation and court cases seeking either to expand or curtail voting access and eligibility, largely divided on political lines – the federal lawsuit against Local Law 11 brings a new argument to the courts, according to University of Kentucky law professor Josh Douglas, who studies voting rights and elections law.
He said the challenge marked the first time he had seen a litigant cite the 15th Amendment in arguing the expansion of voting rights for one group violates the rights of another. He calls the claim a “crazy” and “radical” subversion of the original intent of the very laws the lawsuit cites to protect minority rights.
The 15th Amendment prohibits states from denying people the right to vote based on their race.
For the proposition that the law change would hurt Black voters, the lawsuit cites statements by current city officials in Mayor Eric Adams’ administration when they were still city councilmembers last year.
“This particular legislation is going to shift the power dynamics in New York City in a major way,” Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo – then a councilmember representing parts of Brooklyn – is quoted in the lawsuit as saying. And later on: “I’m clear how the Dominican Republic community will benefit, but not the African American community.”
The complaint highlights Cumbo’s request to study the bill’s impact on local Black voters, which plaintiffs claim the council ignored before pushing ahead to pass the measure.
Adams and Cumbo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Douglas noted that the federal lawsuit would represent another avenue for halting Local Law 11 in the event the state judge’s ruling on the measure was reversed.
Douglas also offered another rationale for the suit: to promote a new perspective on the 15th Amendment’s racial voting protections – and to issue a warning of sorts for states and cities seeking to pursue laws that expand the right to vote.
This article was updated to clarify professor Josh Douglas' analysis of the PILF group's complaint.