Can Noncitizens Vote in the United States?
Generally, you must be a United States citizen to vote in an election. While federal law does not expressly prohibit noncitizens to vote in state and local elections, no states allow noncitizens to vote in those elections – with a few minor exceptions that we'll discuss later. Since the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was passed, noncitizens have also been barred from voting in federal elections, such as presidential elections.
This Wasn't Always the Case
In the early years of the American republic, virtually every state-granted suffrage (the right to vote) either to residents who intended to become U.S. citizens, or to everyone, regardless of their citizenship status. (Only if they were adult males, of course; women weren't granted the right to vote until 1920.)
By the turn of the 20th century, however, those more lenient policies gave way to tighter restrictions on noncitizens' right to vote. The last state to restrict voting rights of noncitizens was Arkansas, in 1926.
Naturalized Citizens Can Vote
That said, there is a way for noncitizens to gain the right to vote: Naturalized U.S. citizens – people from other countries who have established residency in the United States and have applied for permanent citizenship – can vote once they become citizens.
Still, becoming naturalized is not guaranteed, and it can take a long time to happen. You must become a legal resident in the United States and live here for five years before you can apply for citizenship.
In the majority of cases, noncitizens holding permanent resident status verification (also called a green card) cannot vote in federal elections. Legal permanent residents are allowed to vote in specific local elections in a handful of states and cities, including San Francisco and Chicago (local public school council elections). Undocumented immigrants cannot vote anywhere in the United States.
Are You Allowed to Vote? An Imperfect Science
Finding out whether or not you're allowed to vote can be a confusing process. A federal law that took effect in 1995 — the so-called "Motor Voter" law — requires motor vehicle service offices to offer you voting registration materials when you apply for a driver's license or an ID card. Having those registration materials in hand, though, does not equal the right to vote. Some states have tweaked the 1995 law by allowing DMV clerks to ask you whether you are a citizen before handing over registration cards.
Advocates for the right of noncitizens to vote maintain that anyone who works and pays taxes in the United States should have that privilege. They think that keeping such residents from voting amounts to taxation without representation, which is one of the principles the United States' founding fathers fought against.
Voter Fraud Concerns
Much of the determination to keep noncitizens from voting arise from fears of voter fraud, in which ineligible residents vote. In 2011, the Florida Department of State identified hundreds of noncitizens who had been registered to vote, some of whom had been allowed to vote in past elections.
Punishment for violating that law range from a fine to deportation to prison time. The state of Texas prosecuted 33 people in 2018 for illegally casting ballots, and that same year, officials in North Carolina charged 19 foreign nationals for similar infractions – even though nine of them were legal permanent residents.
In California, a law passed in 2016 did away with legal punishment for noncitizens who are inadvertently registered to vote by DMV staff, as when a clerk fails to properly verify the voter's registration.
Not Like This Everywhere: Noncitizen Voting Rights in Other Countries
The rules are not so strict in some other countries. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, 15 countries in Europe, Latin America, and the British Commonwealth gave noncitizens varying levels of voting rights. At least 45 foreign countries have approved some kind of suffrage program for immigrants.
On many occasions, these rights were granted in reciprocity with affiliated nations; the reasoning being that little harm can come from a citizen of Nation A voting in Nation B, and vice-versa. In most cases, the right of noncitizens to vote in those countries is restricted to local or district elections.
Noncitizen Voting in Local Elections
Some cities and states make concessions for noncitizens who wish to vote. In 2017, San Francisco passed Proposition N, which gave noncitizen residents of the city the right to vote in school board elections if the voter was the parent or legal guardian/caregiver of a child in the city's school system.
Right now, 11 local governments let noncitizens vote in local elections. Ten of those governments are in Maryland, in the municipalities of Takoma Park, Barnesville, Martin's Additions, Somerset, Chevy Chase Sections 3 and 5, Glen Echo, Garrett Park, Hyattsville, Mount Rainer, and Riverdale Park.
Eight other states have tried in recent years to enact legislation that would relax the rules regarding noncitizen voters, but with little luck. All have been either voted down, stalled in one legislative chamber or another, or is still pending. Since 2003, the state of New York has tried unsuccessfully four times to change laws restricting noncitizen voters.
Find Out If You Can Vote: Speak to an Attorney
If you're not sure of whether or not your citizenship status allows you to vote, contact an election law attorney in your state.