The Boston City Council is considering a measure that would grant immigrants with “legal status” but without full citizenship the right to vote in local elections.
Councilor Kendra Lara, a proponent, put forward a hearing order Wednesday on the matter, which drew support from several of her colleagues, but was met with legal concerns from Councilor-at-Large Michael Flaherty.
According to Lara’s proposed home rule petition, immigrants with “legal status” constitute more than 28% of the city population, pay on average $2.3 billion in taxes annually, and hold roughly $6 billion in “collective spending power.”
“They’re not able to participate in the electoral process, in what I believe is a violation of one of our foundational American principles,” Lara said. “By moving this home rule petition forward, Boston can begin the process of making good on our promise to build a city that is for everyone.”
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said the measure could provide a boost to the low voter turnout numbers seen in the city’s local elections.
According to unofficial results from the Election Department, voter turnout was just 18.9% in last week’s election, which included Boston City Council races.
“It’s not a new idea,” Arroyo said of non-citizen voting. “It’s important, I think, to give a voice to folks locally, who are providing and are subject to all manner of municipal decisions.”
The petition points to similar action taken by 15 other municipalities across the country as of January 2022, with voting rights restored to “non-citizens” in 11 cities in Maryland, two in Vermont, San Francisco and New York City.
Flaherty, however, raised concerns about the measure, pointing to a non-citizen voting law that was passed by the New York City Council but struck down last year by a State Supreme Court. That decision held that “only U.S. citizens have the privilege of voting,” he said.
In response, Lara said the issue in New York, which like Massachusetts is a home rule petition state, is that the City Council passed an ordinance, rather than filing a home rule petition. This set the body up for “legal scrutiny,” she said.
While Flaherty said he supports inclusivity and a welcoming environment for new “Bostonians,” he cautioned against the “serious ramifications” that could arise by extending voting rights to non-citizens, who could mistakenly register to vote in a federal or state election, when the new law would only apply to city elections.
Further, he pointed to testimony from Veronica Serrato, an immigration attorney and executive director of Project Citizenship, who, according to Flaherty, stated at a prior Council hearing that non-citizens who mistakenly voted in state or federal elections “seriously jeopardize their opportunity to become a legal citizen.”
He advocated for inviting Serrato to testify at a future Council hearing on the matter, along with other immigration trial attorneys and representatives from immigrant organizations, to ensure that the body, via a potential new law, is “not putting someone in harm’s way and barring them from permanent citizenship.”
“I just want to throw caution on the floor to my colleagues, particularly the newer members who haven’t participated in prior Council sessions and hearings, that there is a slippery slope here that needs to be front and center during the course of this hearing,” Flaherty said.
The matter was referred to the Committee on Government Operations.