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NYC granted noncitizens the right to vote in local elections. The idea isn't so new

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

On the steps of New York City Hall Thursday morning, an early celebration for voting rights...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When I say vote, you say yes. Vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Vote.

FLORIDO: ...The voting rights of noncitizens, legal residents with green cards or who have the right to work in the U.S. The New York City Council passed a measure Thursday giving these New Yorkers, more than 800,000 of them, the new ability to vote in local elections. New York isn't the first city to grant these rights in recent years, but it is certainly the largest.

Our next guest says this is just the latest chapter in a sometimes-forgotten part of our American past. Hiroshi Motomura is a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of the book "Americans In Waiting: The Lost Story Of Immigration And Citizenship In The United States." And he is with us now. Thanks for being here, professor.

HIROSHI MOTOMURA: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

FLORIDO: We should start by noting that granting noncitizens the right to vote in local elections is not a new idea. In fact, for some time in the U.S., this was pretty normal, especially from the end of the Civil War through the 1920s. Can you give us some more examples?

MOTOMURA: Actually, it goes back even earlier than that to the very early days of the republic. And it was fairly common for noncitizens to be allowed to vote. But here's the wrinkle. At that time, citizenship was restricted by race. In other words, naturalization was open only to free white persons until 1870. So it's true that intending citizens were allowed to vote during the period I'm talking about. But intending citizens, that was limited, in many respects, by race. And it was limited by gender in many states and territories.

FLORIDO: In New York, there were a few main arguments for this measure that the city council passed earlier this week - one, that people affected by government policies should have a say in those policies, that decision-making is better when more voices are heard. Based on your research, do you agree with those arguments?

MOTOMURA: I think that the arguments in favor of noncitizen voting are largely persuasive. The one argument that's often heard is that people who are taxed should be represented. The second is that people have a stake in decision-making in the sense that they have input that's valuable. So, for example, in a mayoral election, the people who live in the city have something valuable to say and contribute to the discussion. The third one, which I think is recovered from the history of this, is that noncitizens voting, in its heyday, was believed to be the way to attract immigrants to invest in American democracy, to really become involved, not just to settle in particular states and territories, but also to incentivize them to invest and become part of that society.

FLORIDO: Interesting, because opponents of the bill in New York said, among other things, that it would, you know, usurp power from citizens and discourage legal residents from pursuing U.S. citizenship. So does your research not support that idea?

MOTOMURA: Well, I have not done empirical research, and I'm not aware of any empirical research that would compare different periods of history where noncitizen voting was available and noncitizen voting was not available. But I will say this, that the noncitizens voting we're talking about that's really on the active legislative burner, it's only limited to local elections. And so I think it's at least as likely, probably more likely, that someone who becomes invested in the society and in the discourse, the discussion, that they're going to feel part of that process in the city where they live, whether it's New York or a small town. I think that that actually makes them more likely to say, you know, I believe in American democracy. I'm going to participate fully. And that's going to require me to become a citizen.

FLORIDO: Because so much of what New York does is then followed by other cities, do you get the sense that other large cities might follow New York's lead here?

MOTOMURA: I think that we're going to see more of this. But I also think that there's a fair amount of resistance to it as well. I think that New York City adopting this is a major step. And, of course, people will be looking closely to see how campaign strategies change, how results change, and how commitment of people to the communities in which they live, how that changes as well.

FLORIDO: That was Hiroshi Motomura. He is a law professor at UCLA. Hiroshi Motomura, thanks so much for your time.

MOTOMURA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYE SONG, "FEEL YOUR WEIGHT (POOLSIDE REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.