Council tries giving voting rights to voiceless

Ydanis Rodriguez's bill could provide 800,000 non-citizens access to ballot box


There was a time when Mino Lora didn’t have the right to vote.

It was 20 years ago, and she had just arrived from the Dominican Republic.

Lora wasn’t alone, of course. The right to vote is only a right for those who are citizens of this country. Even when Lora became a lawful permanent resident — a green card holder — she still couldn’t participate in some of the most pivotal recent national and local elections.

“I wasn’t ever able to vote for Obama,” Lora said. “I wasn’t able to vote for de Blasio. I wasn’t able to vote for our local council person. Our city council members, our mayors, are huge positions. I went to town halls for the mayor’s race. I did canvassing. But I was not able to vote.”

But green card holders are hardly alone in their inability to participate in elections. Those here on work permits and those allowed to remain in the country through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are also barred from casting a ballot — even in local contests.

It was only when Lora — a Spuyten Duyvil-based theatre non-profit leader — became a citizen in 2015 she finally got the right to vote. And was even able to take things a step further by running for city council herself beginning in 2020.

This reality, however, could change with a piece of legislation that could pass the city council as early as next week. The “Our City, Our Vote” bill is intended to extend voting rights to the roughly 800,000 city residents who are green card holders, here on work permits, or covered under DACA. The legislation, sponsored by Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, would allow those non-citizens to vote in local elections — like for mayor, city council, comptroller, borough president, and public advocate — as well as on city ballot initiatives.

The bill’s likely passage comes at a time when states including Colorado, Alabama and Florida have passed ballot initiatives restricting voting for non-citizens. Rodriguez — whose district includes Marble Hill — says this trend makes passing “Our City” now all the more urgent.

“This will be a historical moment on Dec. 9 when we will be restoring the right of New Yorkers who are not citizens to be able to vote (in) local elections,” Rodriguez said. “In contrast to those states that are reducing voting participation, here in New York City, we’re doing a different way. Recognizing the contribution that those New Yorkers deserve by giving them the voice that they need to be able to elect the leaders who will be making decisions on their taxpayer dollars.”

The legislation will be beneficial, Rodriguez said, not just to service industry workers, but also professionals who come to work here on a temporary basis. For example, tech companies like Meta and Alphabet — which run Facebook and Google — bring in nearly 100,000 workers to Manhattan each year. Many of them, the councilman added, come from Asia.

Voting rights may be at the top of many lists — especially now that a number of states are looking to restrict those very liberties — but Rodriguez’s bill is hardly new. He first introduced it two years ago, based heavily on legislation Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm and Manhattan Councilwoman Margaret Chin have tried to pass over the past decade.

Lora has worked to promote this bill through the New York Immigration Coalition, a conglomeration of more than 200 immigrant and refugee rights groups throughout the state. She believes passing “Our City” is important not just because of her own experiences, but also from her regular interactions with others currently in the same situation — many she encounters through her theatre program.

These “800,000 immigrant New Yorkers who pay taxes, who kept our city running during COVID, will have a say in who gets elected locally,” Lora said. “And that’s where so much of the power of the budget goes, where the streets get cleaned, and how schools are funded and what programs — like summer youth employment. Things that really impact so many New Yorkers who are green card holders, who are Dreamers, young people, and who are here on work permits living life as New Yorkers.”

In fact, Lora said, if this bill had become law in years past, it may have given her an edge in the city council race ultimately won by Eric Dinowitz.

“I think it will have an impact moving forward,” Lora said. “This district is extremely diverse. Is predominantly Latino. It’s so broadly immigrant. And many of them who didn’t have the right to vote, this will now give them the right to vote. And I hope now our council members and whoever’s at the city level recognizes that, and will see the impact of the power of their voice.”

There is some opposition, of course. Mayor Bill de Blasio has indicated he won’t veto the bill if it hits his desk before he moves out of Gracie Mansion, but he also doesn’t think the city has the legal standing to make such a change to voting rights. Instead, the mayor believes voting issues — even those involving city elections — would need to be addressed at the state level.

Plus, de Blasio has raised concerns about the legislation potentially discouraging immigrants from ultimately seeking citizenship.

But the power to veto might not be left just to de Blasio. The 30-day window allowing a mayor to decide to veto will extend slightly into the incoming administration of Eric Adams, according to a published report. While Adams expressed support for giving voting rights to legal non-citizens, he’s also concerned about whether the law could hold up to legal challenges.

And even if the bill becomes law, accocrding to one published report, the city elections board could still decide not to implement it without a directive from the state government or the courts.

Rodriguez, however, doesn’t share those concerns. In fact, he says council Speaker Corey Johnson is confident deciding who can vote at the city level is within the council’s jurisdiction, at least according to the lawyers Johnson has spoken to. But lawsuits will indeed almost certainly be part of the process.

“Will there be lawsuits? Yeah,” Rodriguez said. “We always have to deal with a lot of lawsuits. And at that moment, we need to leave to the judge to make a decision.”

Council and coalition lawyers believe the state constitution gives the city council enough leeway to make this kind of change.

“We’re confident that if there (are) any lawsuits, this bill will survive,” Rodriguez said. “And hopefully next year we will see close to 1 million more voters able to exercise their right to elect their local leaders.”

Mino Lora, Barack Obama, Bill de Blasio, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, Ethan Stark-Miller, Ydanis Rodriguez, Meta, Alphabet, Facebook, Google, Margaret Chin, Daniel Dromm, New York Immigration Coalition, COVID-19, coronavirus, Eric Dinowitz, Eric Adams, Corey Johnson,