January 24, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
‘Voting is not limited to or guaranteed to citizens’
The difference between citizens and non-citizens isn't what you think.
Most of us tend to think that voting is one of the guaranteed privileges of being a citizen of the United States. But throughout our history, the link between voting and citizenship has been fluid and fraught.
Non-citizens used to vote. Citizens were barred from voting. Women could even have their citizenship revoked if they married immigrants. The only constant was that politics defined the line between them.
This is important to note given the nativist rage against immigrants and the fascist conspiracy theories about non-citizens voting. But there was a time when voting was considered preparation for citizenship. Citizenship didn’t have to come first. Voting did. Indeed, enfranchisement was used as a means of attracting immigrants.
Citizenship and voting are not laws of nature. They are outcomes of ordinary politics. They can be changed to fulfill the promise of democracy. All that’s needed is people willing to put up a fight.
The nativists and the fascists (they’re usually the same) want you to believe that citizenship and voting are linked permanently, as if we’re talking about gravity. They want you to think outsiders were never welcome on the inside. They want you to think the value of citizenship depends on exclusion. That’s not true. It never was.
Fact is, voting is not a guaranteed right, not even to citizens.
As Rachel Michelle Gunter explained to me, our courts do not “consider voting to be a right. As long as a state or municipality doesn’t violate the 15th or 19th Amendments, or the bits of the Voting Rights Act that are still in force, they can legally disenfranchise citizens. The Supreme Court’s ruling Minor v. Happersett is very clear on this.
“Voting is not limited to or guaranteed to citizens,” she said.
I got in touch with Professor Gunter after she wrote about the history of non-citizen voting for the Post. The piece was a reminder that citizenship and voting are not laws of nature. They are outcomes of ordinary politics. They can be changed to fulfill the promise of democracy. All that’s needed is people willing to put up a fight.
In your piece in the Post, you mention something I want to zero in on – the idea that voting prepared immigrants for citizenship. We usually assume the opposite. Citizenship before voting.
There isn’t just one reason why politicians enfranchise immigrants. The primary one was to attract the immigrants themselves and particularly their labor. Politicians wouldn’t enfranchise a group they expected to vote for the opposition, so they’re also acting to shore up their base. But initiating immigrants into a democratic system and training them in civic duty was certainly part of it.
There was a time when voting was considered preparation for citizenship. Citizenship didn’t have to come first. Voting did. Indeed, enfranchisement was used as a means of attracting immigrants.
In the 19th century especially, the line between citizen and immigrant was permeable and constantly shifting. “Immigrant declarants” (immigrants who declare intentions to naturalize) could be drafted into the military; they could be charged with treason. It makes sense that along with the responsibilities of this liminal stage of citizenship comes some of its rights as well.
During the antebellum era, the north seems to have been mixed. Some non-citizens could vote. Some couldn’t. But the south seems to have been absolutist. No voting for non-citizens. Can you talk about that?
The largest group of immigrants in mid-19th century America were Germans, who culturally tended to oppose slavery. They tended to oppose secession as well.
They were more likely than Irish immigrants to have the means to move away from coastal cities when they came to the U.S. resulting in pretty large, close-knit German communities in places like the Texas Hill Country.
White southern Democrats certainly did not want these men enfranchised, nor did they want to hasten the naturalization process and subsequent voting rights for them.
While the Republican Party had both pro- and anti-immigrant voices in the late 1850s and early 1860s, they worked to reverse some of the nativist legislation passed on the state level, including extra waiting periods before naturalized citizens could vote.
That’s an interesting point for someone arguing ahistorically that voting and citizenship have always been linked. These naturalized citizens could not vote for a set period of time after naturalization.
When the seven southern states seceded, the Confederate Constitution required all voters to be citizens. They didn’t trust non-immigrants to protect slavery sufficiently.
So it’s quite a shift when Republicans during Reconstruction adopted non-citizen voting in the process of rewriting southern state constitutions to meet standards set by Congress (accept the 14th Amendment and protect Black voting).
My first instinct was that they were trying to counter southern Democratic voters, but taken with other pro-immigrant legislation they passed, it seems more likely to be part of an attempt to attract white, European immigrants.
“The line between citizen and immigrant was permeable and constantly shifting. ‘Immigrant declarants’ could be drafted into the military; they could be charged with treason. It makes sense that along with the responsibilities of this liminal stage of citizenship comes some of its rights as well.”
While much of the focus was on religion, I think politics and labor was more of the issue. White planters didn’t need immigration during the antebellum period. They had all the workforce they wanted.
After slavery, that shifts. Even former Whigs and Republicans in the south want this new labor, and it doesn’t hurt that they expect immigrants will be likely to support the Republican Party.
You said “the line between citizen and immigrant was permeable and constantly shifted.” But citizenship itself was permeable and shifting, too. It could be revoked if a woman married a non-citizen.
The 1855 Naturalization Act forced immigrant women to assume their husband’s citizenship status, regardless of what the woman wanted.
After the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1867, these women were receiving their husband’s birthright citizenship.
By the early 20th century, if they needed to prove citizenship, they had to present a marriage certificate and their husband’s birth certificate.
The country experienced a wave of nativist legislation in the first two decades of the 20th century. The 1907 Act denaturalizing any American woman who married a non-citizen was a part of that.
At first, women’s rights advocates and suffragists who knew that coverture (a married woman’s status by way of her husband’s) was eroding at this time thought that the courts would overturn it.
But the Supreme Court upheld the law in 1915. A woman would forfeit her birthright citizenship when marrying a noncitizen man.
If he naturalized, she would then receive his naturalized citizenship, but her birthright citizenship was gone forever.
Other nations didn’t necessarily offer citizenship to American women who married one of their men, so this created stateless individuals. Some women did not realize they were no longer citizens until they tried to vote in 1920 or shortly thereafter.
We don’t see full independent citizenship until the Chinese Exclusion Act and the ban on Asian immigration is reversed during World War II.
There was a movement among suffragists claiming they should not be taxed if they can’t vote. That argument seems applicable to all immigrants, legal or not.
There is a long history of suffragists arguing they shouldn’t be taxed as long as they remained disfranchised. They never won in court and usually faced a lot of fines.
Rhetorically, though, it was a powerful argument, because of its ties to the revolution and how Americans remember “no taxation without representation.”
“The primary reason for allowing non-citizens to vote was to attract the immigrants themselves and particularly their labor. Politicians wouldn’t enfranchise a group they expected to vote for the opposition, so they’re also acting to shore up their base. But initiating immigrants into a democratic system and training them in civic duty was certainly part of it.”
It’s important to note that immigrant communities count for redistricting purposes, much like incarcerated people, and yet they can’t vote on the state or federal level, nor in most city or county elections. Politicians who want to draw gerrymandered maps use both of these groups to accomplish that goal.
Voter ID disproportionately affects naturalized immigrants as the documents they have to produce for the “free ID” can be costly, not to mention the tax on their time this creates.
I think what the taxation argument gets at is that immigrants are already part of the nation. There is a belonging. There is a certain level of obligation and rights.
Those who want to further bar non-citizens from participating in the body politic (despite the fact that this participation is extremely limited today) typically want to restrict the rights of naturalized immigrants as well, because they refuse to see immigrants as rightfully part of the nation.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.