On June 27, 2022, Judge Ralph Porzio struck down New York City’s noncitizen voting law (No. 2022/011). The case was Fossella v. Adams, and Judge Porzio in Staten Island ruled that the city’s local law violated the state constitutional requirement that voters be U.S. citizens.
The judge relied on three state laws to conclude that New Yorkers did not grant the city unilateral power to make such a drastic change to elections. Judge Porzio pointed to the clear text of the New York State Constitution in Article II, Section 1: “Every citizen shall be entitled to vote at every election…” The drafters specifically used the word “citizen.” Then, there’s also New York State Election Law 5-102, which reiterates the constitutional citizenship requirement: “No person shall be qualified to register for and vote at any election unless is a citizen of the United States.” Again, the law refers explicitly to a “citizen of the United States.” Finally, the judge held that the city violated the New York Municipal Home Rule Law, because New Yorkers did not give the city power to rewrite the state constitution without the input of all New Yorkers statewide.
The court recognized concerns that the law would hurt existing New Yorkers voters by “vote dilution,” a form of voting discrimination which reduces the strength of the voter’s voice to affect the results of elections. Think of voting power like pie. Each voter is a slice. If you increase the size of the total pie (by adding in noncitizen voters), everyone has a smaller slice, and the existing voters’ power decreases. That’s vote dilution, and is extremely concerning related to the voting rights of racial minorities. In a separate lawsuit Coachman v. New York City Board of Elections, four black citizens sued, asserting that the vote dilution is illegal voter discrimination because the noncitizen law “abridges the votes of New Yorkers, not least black citizens.”
The judge’s decision also referenced how burdensome the noncitizen voting law would be on elections. The city had re-defined the very definition of a voter. The noncitizen law had the potential to add close to 1 million new voters to its voter rolls. That’s confusing for voters (both existing voters and potential new voters), candidates, and campaigns. Add to this the fact that New York City has a history of election integrity failures, such as voter roll list mismanagement in 2018, and failure to count all votes in 2021. In October of 2020, even the New York Times acknowledged the city’s “decades of nepotism and bungling of elections.” The noncitizen voting law would have created a brand new duplicate voting system—with dual registration, ballots, and extra amounts of paperwork. How do you think these complexities would have turned out? Let’s focus on trying to run elections well before making them more complicated.
The citizen voting bill passed in January over a divided city council (12 opposed to 33 supporting) vote and without mayoral support. Mayor Bill DeBlasio expressed “mixed feelings” about the “big legal questions” as the bill was considered. DeBlasio’s successor, Mayor Eric Adams, did not sign the bill, due to concerns over the short residency requirement. Former Mayor Bloomberg opposed the bill because of its “legal and logistical obstacles” and because it “devalues citizenship.”
The court’s decision is a victory for citizenship. Those New Yorkers who go through the legal process of naturalization to become citizens in order to vote are respected, and that same process of learning and being welcomed to America should be incentivized. Interestingly, New York City’s citizenship page notes that “You can vote in elections” as one of the “benefits of becoming a citizen.” And now, Judge Porzio’s opinion rightly recognizes that this benefit (and privilege) of voting belongs to the citizens under the law.