Macaulay CUNY Honors College student and Bronx resident Michelle Del Villar felt her heart beating loudly in anticipation when a friend told her about legislation that was recently signed into law to allow approximately 800,000 noncitizens to vote in New York City elections in 2023.
Del Villar was born in Spain to Dominican parents before moving to the Bronx at a young age. When she turned 18, she couldn’t participate in the privilege many U.S. citizens know—registering and casting a vote. Although she was interested in politics, she watched in shock as her classmates did not care to register to vote.
This lit a drive to get involved with politics and advocacy organizations. Del Villar was an active member of YVote, a cross-partisan youth civic engagement movement aimed at assisting young adults with voter registration, turnout and mobilization.
Once Mayor Eric Adams signed the noncitizen voting bill into law, Del Villar was thrilled to realize after years of living in the city, her family members and thousands of fellow Dominicans could finally vote.
However, a legal challenge filed by city Republicans threatens to stall or upend implementation of the new law. After being outvoted in the City Council, New York State Republicans led by Staten Island Borough President Vito Fosellea sued the city, claiming the measure violates state election laws.
“This radical legislation is unconstitutional, unAmerican and downright dangerous,” Nick Langworthy, chair of the state GOP, said in a press release. “We will use every legal method to make sure it’s stopped.”
Despite the uncertainty over when the court challenges might be resolved, Del Villar and voting rights advocates are working hard to make noncitizens aware of the law and are preparing to help new voters sign up once it is upheld.
Around 390,000 Dominicans were eligible to vote in New York City in 2017. That’s more than triple the number eligible in 2014, and is the highest in the country, according to DominicanosUSA. About 240,000 of those Dominicans reside in the South Bronx, specifically Congressional District 15, and make up one-third of the district’s residents.
The New York City Office of Immigrant Affairs found Dominican immigrants also have the highest percentage of foreign-born populations in New York City.
“Many feel identified with many Dominican political figures, but ironically, they were unable to vote for them, especially on a local basis: deciding who should be their public advocate or, in a more borough-specific way, who is a better fit to be their borough president,” Del Villar said.
Although the voices of immigrants should be heard through the voting process, she said, the law caused a few disagreements in the community, as many believed this should already be a right given to them.
“It should not be a question as to why immigrants deserve their voice and opinion to be counted on the laws that are directly influencing them,” she said.
To qualify under the new law, noncitizens must be a New York City resident for over 30 days, be over the age of 18, and not be imprisoned for a felony. Additionally, they must claim the city as their only possible voting location, a court cannot have found them “mentally incompetent,” and they must have a green card or work authorization, according to the New York City Office of Immigration Affairs.
Those who qualify can only vote for New York City mayor, comptroller, public advocate, city council members, borough president, and citywide ballot measures, the Immigration Affairs office noted. This includes primaries, special elections, general and run-off elections. But it does not apply to state or federal elections.
Zein Murib, a political science professor at Fordham University, does not believe critics who say this law will cause a decline in those pursuing citizenship.
“…For many, the benefits and safety assured by citizenship seem to outweigh being able to access the polls in New York City, so I doubt this will have any negative impact on people pursuing naturalization,” Murib said. “These are individuals who are paying taxes without representation — I am sure they’ll be thrilled to feel like they have a voice.”
The legislation was introduced by former New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, a popular Dominican politician.
“It is no secret, we are making history today,” Rodriguez said in early December when the City Council first passed the bill. “Fifty years down the line when our children look back at this moment, they will see a diverse coalition of advocates who came together to write a new chapter in New York City’s history by giving immigrant New Yorkers the power of the ballot.”
The law was supported by Councilman Rafael Salmanaca, who represents the South Bronx. Because of the pending litigation, Salamanca declined to comment about the law.
Regardless of the lawsuit, multiple advocacy organizations have shown their support, saying this will help New York City’s democracy.
“When powerful forces lobby to restrict access to the ballot box and seek to turn our country back, New York can and must offer a strong reminder that our leaders don’t get to choose their voters,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of New York Immigration Coalition in December. “The voters choose who leads them.”
Del Villar relishes the diversity of New York City, enjoying the various languages she hears when she’s in the subway or outside. Although she and other noncitizens pay taxes, she feels she doesn’t have proper representation as a result.
“It is important to highlight that although people may not be considered legal citizens, they have been living in New York for many years of their life,” Del Villar said.