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House Votes to Ban Noncitizen Voting in D.C. Local Elections Amid National Debate

In a significant legislative move, the House of Representatives has passed a bill aimed at prohibiting non-U.S. citizens from participating in local elections in Washington, D.C. This decision marks the latest intervention by Congress in the affairs of the nation’s capital, sparking a contentious debate over the rights of noncitizen residents and the autonomy of local governance.

The bill, which was approved with a vote of 262-143, seeks to overturn a 2022 measure passed by the D.C. Council. This local law had expanded the definition of who could be considered a qualified elector in municipal elections to include non-U.S. citizens who are legally resident in D.C. This includes those voting on local leadership positions and ballot initiatives.

Background and Legal Challenges

The 2022 D.C. law was challenged in federal court by a group of seven D.C. voters who argued that the inclusion of noncitizens diluted their vote. However, the court upheld the local statute, with the judge ruling that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate they were harmed by the inclusion of noncitizen voters.

Despite this, federal lawmakers have taken up the issue, with significant support from Republicans who argue that voting in the nation’s capital should be restricted to U.S. citizens. “The city council has decided they want noncitizens and foreign actors deciding who will serve as mayor and the local attorney general here. As the body in charge of overseeing D.C., Congress will not support such lawless behavior,” stated Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) during a press conference.

Opposition and Criticism

The bill has faced strong opposition from Democrats, particularly from D.C.’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who criticized the bill as undemocratic and paternalistic. Norton emphasized that D.C. residents, a majority of whom are Black and brown, are fully capable of self-governance without congressional interference. She urged her colleagues to reject the bill, highlighting the small number of noncitizens who actually register and vote in local elections, which stands in contrast to the implications suggested by opponents of the policy.

National Context

This congressional action mirrors a broader national conversation about the role of noncitizen voting in local elections. Currently, only 16 cities and towns across the United States permit noncitizens to vote in local elections, demonstrating a community’s trust in the input of all residents, regardless of citizenship status. Conversely, at least six states have enacted laws preventing localities from allowing noncitizens to vote, reflecting a wide spectrum of policies across the country.

For example, in Vermont and San Francisco, where noncitizens can vote in local elections, their participation remains a small fraction of total votes cast. In Takoma, Maryland, which has allowed noncitizen voting for over 30 years, about 20 percent of registered noncitizens participate in elections, indicating a significant level of engagement where permitted.

Constitutional and Legal Considerations

The issue also touches on constitutional grounds. The U.S. Constitution delegates the responsibility to set the time, place, and manner of elections to the states, leaving federal intervention in such matters somewhat controversial, particularly in the case of D.C., which lacks the same statehood status as other American jurisdictions. This situation highlights ongoing debates about D.C.’s governance and the extent of federal oversight over its laws.

Looking Forward

As the bill moves to the Senate, the future of noncitizen voting rights in D.C. hangs in balance. This legislative effort not only affects the immediate rights of noncitizens living and contributing to the D.C. community but also sets a precedent for how deeply Congress is willing to involve itself in the local democratic processes of the District. The outcome could have long-lasting implications for the debate over D.C. self-governance and the broader national discourse on who should have the right to vote in local elections.