Can Noncitizens Vote in the United States?

Generally, only United States citizens can vote in American elections. While federal law does not expressly prohibit noncitizens from voting in state and local elections, very few states allow noncitizens to vote in any election.

Since Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, noncitizens can't vote in federal elections, such as presidential elections.

This Wasn't Always the Case

In the early years of the American democratic republic, every state granted suffrage (the right to vote) to residents who intended to become U.S. citizens or to everyone (free, white men), regardless of their citizenship status. (Congress didn't grant women the right to vote until 1920.)

By the turn of the 20th century, these lenient policies gave way to tighter restrictions on noncitizens' right to vote. The last state to restrict the voting rights of noncitizens was Arkansas. They did so 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 American citizens.

Still, naturalization is not guaranteed and can also take a long time. You must become a legal resident of the United States and live here for five years before you can apply for citizenship.

In most cases, noncitizens with permanent resident status (green card holders) can't vote in federal elections. Legal permanent residents can vote in specific local elections in several states and municipalities, including San Francisco and Chicago. For example, these jurisdictions allow noncitizens to vote in public school or city council elections.

Undocumented immigrants can't vote anywhere in the United States.

Are You Allowed to Vote? An Imperfect Science

Finding out whether you have the right to vote can be confusing. In 1995, the U.S. government passed the “Motor Voter" law. This federal law requires motor vehicle service offices to offer voting registration materials when people apply for a driver's license or an ID card.

Remember that having paperwork explaining how to register to vote isn't the same as having the right to vote. Some states tweaked the 1995 law by allowing DMV clerks to ask whether the applicant is 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 this privilege. They think keeping such residents from voting is “taxation without representation." This is one of the principles the United States' founding fathers fought against.

These arguments have yet to convince federal regulators to allow noncitizens to vote.

Voter Fraud Concerns

One reason noncitizens can't vote is the fear of voter fraud. Politicians fear that ineligible and illegal residents somehow get the right to vote.

In 2011, the Florida Department of State identified hundreds of noncitizens registered to vote, some of whom had voted in past elections.

The punishment for noncitizens who violate voting laws ranges from fines to deportation. Some violators get prison time. For example, in 2018, Texas prosecuted 33 people for illegally casting ballots. That same year, officials in North Carolina charged 19 foreign nationals for similar infractions, even though nine were legal permanent residents.

In 2016, the California governor eliminated legal punishment for noncitizens who inadvertently registered to vote via the DMV. For instance, it wouldn't punish a noncitizen when a DMV clerk fails to properly verify the voter's registration.

Not Like This Everywhere: Noncitizen Voting Rights in Other Countries

Other countries have less strict rules on noncitizens' voting. 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 suffrage programs for immigrants.

On many occasions, the governments granted voting rights in reciprocity with affiliated nations. They didn't believe any harm would come from a citizen of Nation A voting in Nation B and vice-versa.

In most cases, foreign governments restrict noncitizens' voting rights 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. This proposition gave noncitizen residents the right to vote in school board elections as long as the voter was the parent or guardian of a child in the city's school system.

At least 14 local governments allow noncitizens to vote in city elections. Eleven of these governments are in Maryland, and two are in Vermont.

Eight other states have tried to enact legislation that would relax the rules on noncitizen voters. State legislatures have chosen to veto or stall these laws; some are still pending.

Since 2003, New York has tried to change laws restricting noncitizen voters four times. Although New York City did pass an ordinance allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, a state court judge struck it down in June 2022, stating it violated the state constitution.

Essentially, unless you are a citizen of the United States, you will not be voting in elections anytime soon. Election officials and politicians have made sure of that.

You Don't Have to Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer's Help

If you are unsure whether you have the right to vote, contact an experienced civil rights lawyer. They can review your citizenship status and help determine your voting rights. A skilled attorney can also help determine if someone has violated your voting rights.

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