As a member of The Inquirer’s Editorial Board, I spent the past two months interviewing candidates, researching their positions, and writing endorsements. I called, emailed, and tweeted to remind every person I know in Philadelphia to vote in Tuesday’s primary. But when Election Day came, and everyone shared excited photos from the polls with their “I Voted Today” sticker, I had a major case of voting FOMO (fear of missing out).
I wasn’t born in the United States. I am not yet a citizen, but I am a permanent resident. Philadelphia is my home — where I got married, where my daughter was born, where I own a home, where I am building my career. And even though I am as impacted by the decisions of our city’s government as anyone else, my opinion is not represented when it comes to choosing who leads our city, because I can’t cast a vote.
According to a 2018 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 120,000 non-naturalized immigrants are in Philadelphia. Included in this group are permanent residents (like me), asylum seekers and refugees, those with worker visas, and undocumented immigrants.
My story is not a tragic one. I am privileged and extremely blessed to have a platform through which I can make my voice heard. I have the means to volunteer for a campaign if I choose to (though I don’t do that anymore since I’ve started working at The Inquirer). This isn’t the case for all immigrants, but for me, there are a lot of other tools in the civic toolbox.
But it doesn’t have to be this way for me, or for many other immigrants in Philadelphia.
Here is my proposal: Philadelphia created PHL City ID — an identification card available to anyone over age 13 who lives in Philly, regardless of immigration status. The ID shows both an address and a date of birth. Any person over 18 who can show a PHL City ID at the polling location that matches the address should be able to vote in a municipal election.
This move wouldn’t be taking a step forward. Rather, it would be restoring a right from the past. Until 1920, most states and territories allowed noncitizens to vote. In the Pennsylvania’s first constitution, voting was a right of “all free men having a sufficient evident common interest with, and attachment to the community.” But starting in the mid-19th century and up to the 1920s, laws changed in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Currently, only a few cities allow limited voting for noncitizens. San Francisco and at least 10 cities in Maryland allow noncitizens to vote in school board elections. Several cities in Massachusetts, including Boston, are considering similar measures. Those cities decided to end the “taxation without representation” that their immigrant residents are subjected to, and Philadelphia should follow suit.
In thinking about how to design noncitizen voting, the risks that undocumented immigrants face must be considered. The biggest barrier to their voting is that if the process requires registration, many may be too scared to participate — perhaps now more than ever, given the current climate of aggressive immigration enforcement.
But that’s no excuse. Many citizens don’t vote, either by choice or because of policies that stand in their way. The appropriate response is not to eliminate their right to vote, but to work harder to combat disenfranchisement.
Giving noncitizens the right to vote must be a part of continuing efforts to protect undocumented immigrants.
Philadelphia takes pride in being a welcoming city — a sanctuary. On Tuesday’s ballot, voters weighed in on whether to amend the city’s charter to make the Office of Immigrant and Cultural Affairs a permanent city office. Providing services to immigrants is great, but including immigrants as equal partners in our city’s democracy would be even better.
I get jealous when I see that “I Voted Today” sticker. It will take me years to become a citizen, and thousands of dollars in fees.