Federal Judge rules in favor of noncitizen's ability to vote

 March 22, 2024

In a landmark decision, a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against a law that enables noncitizens to participate in local Washington, D.C., elections.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled against a challenge to the Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2022, which allows noncitizens to vote and run for certain local government positions.

The lawsuit was brought forward by seven U.S. citizens who claimed that the law infringed upon their Fifth Amendment rights. They argued that by permitting noncitizens to vote, the law diluted the voting power of U.S. citizens in the district.

A Historic Ruling on Voting Rights

Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued her opinion on Thursday, decisively dismissing the plaintiffs' claims. Jackson argued that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate how the law tangibly harmed their rights or diminished their voting power.

According to the ruling, the Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2022, passed by the D.C. Council, extends voting rights in municipal elections to noncitizen residents. However, it explicitly excludes federal elections from this provision.

Further extending the scope of participation, the law also allows noncitizens to run for certain positions within D.C.'s local government and to serve on the city’s Board of Elections, marking a significant shift in local electoral policy.

The Legal Challenge and Its Dismissal

The plaintiffs, represented by the Immigration Reform Law Institute, sought to prevent the D.C. Board of Elections from registering noncitizens as voters and from counting their votes in elections. Their suit contended that the new law essentially violated the constitutional principle of citizen self-government by allowing noncitizens to vote.

In her ruling, Judge Jackson emphasized that the plaintiffs' grievances were more about policy objections than actual legal infringements. She stated that their voting weight remains unchanged and that they do not suffer loss of representation or discriminatory treatment as a result of the law.

Among the plaintiffs were notable figures such as Stacia Hall, who ran for mayor as a Republican and lost to incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2022, and Ralph Chittams, a Republican candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council in 2018. Their involvement underscores the political undercurrents surrounding the lawsuit.

Reactions and Broader Implications

The law’s passage and the subsequent legal challenge caught the attention of federal lawmakers, leading to House-approved resolutions aimed at overturning the measure. These efforts were part of a larger battle over the D.C. Home Rule Act, which governs the extent of the district's autonomy in enacting laws.

Despite the House's opposition, the Senate did not act within the 30-day review period required for blocking the law, allowing the Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act to stand. This legislative inaction underscores the complexity of D.C.'s governance and its relationship with federal oversight.

As Judge Jackson's ruling makes clear, the plaintiffs' challenge was rooted in policy preferences rather than concrete legal grounds. Her decision reinforces the notion that voting rights expansions, even those including noncitizens in local elections, do not inherently diminish the electoral power of citizens.

Exploring the Boundaries of Voting Rights

The dispute over the Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2022 has sparked a broader discussion about the role of noncitizens in local democracies. By allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections, Washington, D.C., joins a small but growing list of jurisdictions reevaluating the traditional boundaries of electoral participation.

This decision is poised to have lasting implications on the political landscape of D.C. and potentially inspire similar legislation in other areas of the United States. It represents a significant moment in the ongoing debate over who should have a voice in local governance.

The case also highlights the judicial system's role in addressing and resolving disputes over electoral laws and the rights of citizens versus noncitizens in the democratic process.

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