The Next Step in Expanding Democracy?

by Drew Spencer // Published May 20, 2013


Recently, several news outlets have noted a new expansion of suffrage in one small city in Maryland. On May 13, Takoma Park, Maryland - home of FairVote - became the first city to allow residents to vote in local elections at ages 16 and 17. As detailed in a FairVote news release, it adopted this new law along with two other charter changes designed to expand suffrage, and, separately, a powerful resolution in support of an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution.

Indeed, Takoma Park is now the first city to become what we call a "participation city" in our new Promote Our Vote project. Participation cities (and participation campuses) pass Promote Our Vote resolutions calling for a right to vote in the U.S. Constitution and creating a task force to review electoral laws and policies. The voting age change was part of this initiative, given evidence gathered by the council about its likely positive impact on how many young people take advantage of their first opportunity to vote.

As more localities debate Promote Our Vote resolutions, the conversation about who is included in the community of suffrage will expand. Age is not the only line that may be reevaluated.  For example, Takoma Park also expanded suffrage rights for all residents after they have served their time in jail, joining a practice of many states. Another is whether citizenship status should be critical to exercising the fundamental right of suffrage.

Unlike voting at age 16, allowing all residents to vote, irrespective of citizenship, is not new. From the Founding until 1926, 22 states and federal territories permitted noncitizens to vote in local, state and even federal elections. And of course citizenship has never guaranteed the right to vote either: for example, female citizens prior to 1920 could not vote in most states.

Even today, several communities continue to allow anyone to vote in local elections who has lived there, based on the notion that if a person lives in a community, works there, pays taxes, and otherwise has a real stake in local government, they should be allowed a voice in how that government is run. Six of those communities are in Maryland - including Takoma Park.

Key arguments made in favor of the change include:

  • Individuals should have a say in the laws that govern them;
  • We need to close the gap between local government and the people it serves; and
  • Immigrants make enormous financial, social and cultural contributions.

FairVote does not have a position on non-citizen voting beyond believing that communities should debate the issue with an open mind.

A strong coalition has formed to promote the issue in New York City, led by the group IVote. On May 9th the New York City local government held hearings on legislation to allow legal, non-citizen residents to vote in its local elections. A large majority of the city council has endorsed the change.


I went to New York City to testify both as to our position on suffrage as a fundamental right and to provide descriptions of the Maryland experience on election administration of noncitizens voting. In preparation for my testimony, I conducted interviews with town clerks and managers in several of the Maryland cities that allow non-citizen residents to vote. None of them reported any controversy over the practice or any attempt at repeal. Takoma Park even reported wariness about consolidating local and congressional elections because it would complicate the practice (no city allows non-citizens to vote in federal elections, as doing so would violate federal law). These cities use a separate voter registration form and maintain a separate voter roll for non-citizen voters, but on Election Day the rolls are consolidated so that no one knows whether a particular voter is a citizen or not - only whether they are properly registered to vote for that election.


This discussion takes on special relevance when viewed in the context of the right to vote as a fundamental right. When seen in that light, any question of suffrage is not "should [group] be allowed to vote?" but rather "should [group] continue to be denied the fundamental right to vote?" For this reason, FairVote recommends that communities consider these changes in the context of the Promote Our Vote movement for an affirmative right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. In that way, all questions are grounded in principle, not politics.

To find out about introducing a Right to Vote resolution in your community or campus, visit