New York court strikes down law giving 800,000 noncitizens local voting rights

The City Council passed the legislation in December, but a state Supreme Court justice has ruled that such a move would first require a referendum

A volunteer with a sign written in English, Spanish and Chinese, in November at local elections in New York.
A volunteer with a sign written in English, Spanish and Chinese, in November at local elections in New York.Richard Drew (AP)

The Supreme Court of the State of New York on Monday struck down a law granting around 800,000 noncitizens living in New York City the right to vote in local elections. The City Council had approved this piece of legislation in December, expanding municipal voting rights to permanent legal residents, those with work authorization and people with temporary asylum or refugee protection status.

But according to Justice Ralph J. Porzio of Staten Island, the law violates the state’s Constitution. In his ruling, Porzio argued that only eligible citizens may vote, and that changing that to include noncitizens would first require holding a referendum. The ruling was handed down just ahead of the state’s primary elections on Tuesday, but will have no effect on it.

The municipal law passed in December was not due to take effect before January, but it had already attracted attention as it placed New York at the forefront of a national debate on the right to vote, not unlike the struggle between Republicans and Democrats over this intrinsic right. While some states have been legislating in favor of expanding eligibility, others have been moving in the opposite direction and explicitly prohibiting non-Americans from voting. State and federal leaders of the Republican Party, as well as a handful of local Republican officials, had challenged the law. New York State, like the city’s mayor’s office, is a traditionally Democratic stronghold.

The Staten Island judge’s ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed by Republican representatives. “Today’s decision validates those of us who can read the plain English words of our State Constitution and state statutes,” said Joseph Borelli, a Republican councilman from Staten Island and one one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Noncitizen voting in New York is illegal.”

The lawsuit was filed by Vito Fossella -like Borelli, a descendant of immigrants- president of the borough of Staten Island, arguing that the new rule would change campaigning. A group of voters joined the suit, considering that their own votes would be diluted by the new law.

New York City mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, initially supported the legislation but did not sign it when he took office in January, so the bill automatically became law. City officials are now evaluating the next steps to take, said Fabien Levy, spokesman for the mayor.

The approval of the right to vote for noncitizens was a milestone in its day in a city historically fueled by waves of immigration - Italians and Irish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Asians in the 1970s and now Hispanics.

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