In my last months as mayor, I was presented with a novel issue about voting rights. First, some background. The federal government was retreating from the protection of voting rights so we appointed an Immigrant Rights Voting Taskforce to see what we could do locally. Their report is due soon.
Voting is no small thing. In the face of money, power, and influence, voting is the ultimate recourse of the public in a democracy. We are appalled at actions taken throughout our nation's history to suppress or prohibit voting.
And progressives agree that greater turnout, particularly from youth and communities of color, will generate more pressure to to address racism and inequality as well as global warming.
So here was the novel idea presented to me: Should Seattle allow non-citizens to vote in local elections?
My initial reaction might have been the same as yours.
Doesn’t the U.S. Constitution require citizenship in order to vote? It turns out that it does not. Currently, and right back to the beginnings of the republic, eligibility to vote in local elections is a matter of state law. Constitutional amendments and federal laws have been enacted to prevent discrimination by the states, but not to require citizenship in state and local elections.
Given this, the question began to capture my imagination. After all, “No taxation without representation” was a rallying cry for civil disobedience at our country’s founding.
I also wondered who was eligible to vote when Washington Territory included settlers from foreign countries, and I decided to take a look. Citizenship was not a requirement in 1853 when the territory was established. Here's what the territory's governing document said at the time:
That every white male inhabitant above the age of twenty-one years, who shall have been a resident of said Territory at the time of the passage of this act, and shall possess the qualifications hereinafter prescribed, shall be entitled to vote at the first election, and shall be eligible to any office within the said Territory; but the qualifications of voters and of holding office at all subsequent elections shall be such as shall be prescribed by the Legislative Assembly: Provided, That the right of suffrage and of holding office shall be exercised only by citizens of the United States above the age of twenty-one years, and those above that age who shall have declared on oath their intention to become such, and shall have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the provisions of this act.
To summarize, to vote you had be a white male resident over 21 years old. Actual citizenship was not required, merely an intention to become a citizen.
The territorial legislature made changes over time. Here are the qualifications in 1888, reflecting the racism of the time:
That all citizens of the United States, male and female, above the age of twenty-one years, and all American half-breeds, male and female, over that age who have adopted the habits of the whites, and all other inhabitants, male or female, of this Territory, above that age, who shall have declared, on oath, their intentions to become citizens of the U. S. at least six mouths previous to the day of election, and shall have taken an oath to support the constitution and government of the United States at least six months previous to the day of election, and who shall have resided six months in the Territory, sixty days in the county and thirty days in the precinct next preceding the day of election, and none other, shall be entitled to vote at any election in this Territory.
Women could vote. But “American half-breeds” without “the habits of whites” could not. If you ever doubted that race was a social construct, here is your proof.
When I look at our history, race appears much more important to voting than citizenship in the Washington territories. Not that citizenship is irrelevant—there is a desire to see the commitment that citizenship entails. But it is not essential.
The citizenship requirement would change. By 1896 in Washington the mere intention to become a citizen was not enough any more. There was also a new requirement to “read and speak the English language” (now thankfully discarded). But when race became disfavored as a legal qualification for voting, it sure looks like racism found new outlets to suppress voting.
We don't need to accept the dictates of our past. I now know my answer to the novel question presented to me. Should Seattle allow non-residents to vote in local elections? Absolutely—upon residency for a period of time that demonstrates commitment to the community. If it was good enough for white male settlers in 1853, it’s good enough for our diverse population today.
When I look at this I think especially of the "Dreamers"—young men and women who have grown up and belong here, but are legally denied citizenship. They want to be citizens, and they help define Seattle. Let them vote. I would like to see everyone who lives in Seattle and cares about it have a say in its future, without regard to race, gender, or national origin.
Seattle wouldn’t be the first. Takoma Park in Maryland allows it, as do many European localities. But it would be a big deal if Seattle did it.
I am writing this now as we approach an historic election in Seattle. All nine city council seats are up and over forty candidates have declared for office. Wouldn't it be great if candidates would let us know where they stand on this issue? I don't expect it to happen overnight—there are bound to be many obstacles. And yes, non-citizen voting is now way outside of the norm. But Seattle has had a way of changing norms for the better. This is one worth doing.