Thoughts on Voting Rights in Richmond
Growing up, my head was constantly filled with fantasies about freedom, choices, riches, and justice. I was raised to believe that a country founded by immigrants and for immigrants was rooted in justice, liberty, and freedom for all. I was raised to believe that I could become whomever I wanted if I just worked hard enough. I was raised to believe that everyone mattered, was protected by the law, and was cared for by society.
It was the founding document to our country that proclaimed there shall be no taxation without representation, ensuring everyone who participated in society had a say in it. In the early years of the American republic, virtually every state granted suffrage (the right to vote) either to residents who intended to become U.S. citizens or to everyone, regardless of their citizenship status so long as they were white, male landowners.
Albeit flawed, the American Constitution made a promise to every single person who migrated to America. It committed to representation, it pledged liberty, and it promised justice for all. These constitutional values, originally constructed for the purpose of ensuring democracy and equality, have over time become distorted by a fierce increase in American nationalism preceding the start of the First World War. The culmination of a rise in xenophobia and protectionism can be seen in even the recent Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which successfully barred any non-citizens from voting in federal elections. And just like that, the United States Constitution failed to live up to the promises it made to immigrants seeking a better life. Immigrants who, through their hard work and belief in the promise of American liberty and justice, left the comforts of their home to build this country from the ground up.
Fortunately, Federal law deliberately did not address state nor local elections, leaving it up to the states to decide their respective voting laws. All state constitutions mention United States citizenship in reference to who can vote in that state's elections—in 48 states, constitutional language about citizenship stipulates who can vote (e.g., "every citizen" or "all citizens")— but the constitutions do not stipulate that non-citizens cannot vote. In Arizona and North Dakota, their constitutions specify that citizens, but not noncitizens, have the right to vote, making them the only two states to specifically outlaw undocumented persons from voting. As of July 2021, there is no law in the State of California preventing undocumented immigrants from voting in municipal elections. In fact, San Francisco has recently pioneered undocumented inclusion in local elections, allowing undocumented parents with documented children to vote in the San Francisco School Board elections.
All over the country, from Illinois to Maryland to Vermont, localities have legally expanded the voting rights of all their constituents to include their voices in their local city elections—school boards, county officers, etc. We have an opportunity to change the way we view each other and our rights in this country, and it starts here in Richmond. We need to secure voting rights for all our Richmond residents. We need to secure voting rights for our tax-paying workers. We need to secure voting rights for our disenfranchised populations who are continuously denied their most American prerogative of voting, despite being taxed and expected to engage like any other American. Not only is it unconstitutional to tax our undocumented neighbors without representation, it is unethical, regressive, and undemocratic to continue to deny people a voice in the community where they live. Our constitution promotes and promises democracy and justice for all. The legal groundwork has been laid. We must act to enact equal representation for all our citizens. Let us do that in Richmond. Let us represent everyone equally. Let us build a society where democracy and freedom ring loud and clear. Let us fulfill the promise the United States Constitution set out to give us.
Ozmar Huerta is a college freshman at George Washington University studying Political Science and International Affairs. As a Richmond native, he has involved himself in multiple aspects of the community to try and address the social inequities he and others have seen growing up here. From the Chairman of the Richmond Youth Council to a member of the Reimagine Richmond Task Force, Ozmar strives to rebuild Richmond to a city of newfound pride and purpose.