Yellow Springs action sparks push to ban non-citizens from local voting

One village’s effort to let a few dozen people vote in its local elections may lead to amending the Ohio constitution, if some state legislators have their way.

In 2019, Yellow Springs held a referendum on whether to allow people who were residents but were not U.S. citizens to vote for local offices. It passed with 59% of the vote, Yellow Springs Council President Brian Housh said.

Now some state lawmakers are working to keep that from happening in the future with a pair of resolutions that propose amending the Ohio Constitution to prohibit local governments from allowing people to vote in their local elections if they’re not qualified to vote in state elections.

State Reps. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, and Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., introduced HJR 4 on May 17. It passed the House State & Local Government Committee on its second hearing May 24, then passed the full House 68-28 the next day.

SJR 6, sponsored by state Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Twp., was also introduced May 17. It had a second hearing in the Senate Local Government & Elections Committee on May 24 but didn’t come up for a vote.

If they pass both chambers by a three-fifths margin – as HJR 4 already has in the House – the question would be on the statewide ballot Nov. 8. If a simple majority of the Ohio electorate approves it, the measure will amend the Ohio Constitution accordingly.

Housh described the push for a constitutional amendment in reaction to Yellow Springs’ referendum “outsized” and politicized.

“Honestly, we really didn’t think it was that big as a deal,” he said. “It’s a local issue. It’s about local issues.”

Yellow Springs has about 3,800 residents. Only about 170 are foreign-born, and the vast majority of that foreign-born population are naturalized citizens, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.

Housh said allowing noncitizens to vote would likely affect about 30 people: business owners, residents with children in local schools who have a stake in village affairs. According to census figures, the number of potential noncitizen voters appears to be 26.

Housh said Llyn McCoy, deputy director of the Greene County Board of Elections, indicated that noncitizen voting in Yellow Springs was manageable.

But Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose stepped in, ordering Greene County not to accept any voter registration forms from noncitizens.

Since then, Housh said, no noncitizens have tried to register to vote. Yellow Springs appealed LaRose’s decision but has not taken legal action.

Legal grounds

LaRose told legislators that allowing noncitizens to vote would “cheapen the value of citizenship.” He would never allow it, but another secretary of state might, he said.

The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission, which analyzes proposed legislation, considers noncitizen voting in local elections a gray area, LaRose said.

“Some believe that home rule allows this to happen,” he said.

LaRose said if a local jurisdiction allowed noncitizens to vote in its elections, that would require county boards of election to create a separate, parallel system for voter registration and ballot types and might require use of a separate set of voting machines.

“The administrative burden to this is not to be understated,” he said.

Alisha Beeler, who became Greene County Board of Elections director in June 2021, said the proposed constitutional amendment is directly tied to Yellow Springs’ referendum.

“We won’t allow them to be registered to vote because that’s state law. We have to follow the state constitution,” she said.

The Ohio Constitution specifies that “every citizen of the United States, of the age of eighteen years,” is eligible to vote, provided they meet residency requirements and register at least 30 days before an election.

But it does not specifically say voting eligibility must be limited to those requirements. Ohio has not explicitly prohibited noncitizens from voting in local, or even state, elections, said Marc Clauson, professor of history and law at Cedarville University.

“But since local governments are ‘creatures’ of the state, courts might hold that any locality has to get explicit permission from the legislature to allow noncitizen voting,” he said. “The General Assembly would also have to approve noncitizens’ participation in any state-level elections.”

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio, told legislators the ACLU is not taking a position on noncitizen voting. But he described the proposed amendment as rushed and “wholly unnecessary.”

Daniels said the proposal plays to those who are “unhealthily obsessed” with the falsehood that President Joe Biden’s election in 2020 was illegitimate and that Ohio’s voting systems are not secure.

In the House debate, state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, denounced the proposed amendment as a political move aimed at taking away cities’ home rule.

“What’s really going on here is an effort to promote a narrative that our elections are faulty,” she said.

One argument for restricting voting to citizens is that it serves as an incentive for citizenship, but state Rep. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood, said obtaining U.S. citizenship is a long and expensive process. People may be legal permanent residents and actively involved in a community for years without becoming citizens.

Long history

Legal voting by noncitizens is not new in the United States, according to Stateline, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ reporting arm. From the founding of the country until 1926, 40 states at various times allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state and federal elections, Stateline found, citing San Francisco State University political science professor Ron Hayduk. In some places noncitizens could even hold office.

Depending on where someone lived, voters could be required to show documentation to vote, but that was loosely enforced, Clauson said.

“Citizenship really meant nothing, nor did documents,” he said.

Efforts to allow noncitizens to vote are more likely to be successful in larger cities, which are predominantly Democratic, rather than in more conservative and rural areas, Clauson said.

Housh told Ohio legislators that Maryland cities’ experience shows that undocumented immigrants today – already at risk of being detained and deported – would not take the risk of trying to vote in local elections.

States began to limit or prohibit voting by noncitizens from around 1880 to World War I, likely driven by an influx of immigrants and war-era suspicions, Clauson said. At the time women could not vote in many states, or in any federal election; and African Americans were barred from voting in much of the South, he noted.

In 1996, the federal government formally prohibited noncitizens from voting in federal elections.

Even that move left the question open for state and local elections, Clauson said. Up to 15 state constitutions, including Ohio’s, are ambiguous on the issue, he said.

Last year Stateline noted that until recently only San Francisco and nine Maryland cities have allowed noncitizens to vote in local elections. Two cities in Vermont joined that group in 2021. Two towns in Massachusetts passed resolutions to allow noncitizen local voting but still needed state approval.

Legislators in Washington, D.C., Illinois and New York City were considering similar permission, Stateline found. But in the previous three years Alabama, Colorado, Florida and North Dakota amended their constitutions to ensure only U.S. citizens could vote anywhere in those states.

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