Like the immigrants who settled Washington Territory a century-and-a-half ago, many of today’s noncitizen newcomers are looking to put down roots and get involved in how Seattle runs.
“Politics is definitely one of my most favorite things,” says Ray Corona. “It’s what I think and worry about.” Corona first got involved in politics as a University of Washington student and since then has worked on everything from college access to LGBTQ issues.
But despite that enthusiasm, this 24-year-old won’t be voting in the upcoming local elections.
Why? Because he’s not a citizen.
“It’s almost one of those things that you’ve gotten used to,” says Corona, who was born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. at age 9. “Growing up a noncitizen — or undocumented — there are many things that you prepare for, that you know about and you learn to do but you never actually get to do.”
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And Corona is not alone. We live in a rapidly growing city where nearly 20 percent of residents were born abroad, yet many still are not citizens. King County Elections says they don’t keep track of how many county residents aren’t eligible to vote because of citizenship status. But they did report dismal turnout by registered voters in last month’s primaries.
This has advocates like Corona (who works for the Washington Dream Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for undocumented immigrants) advocating for local voting rights for noncitizens. Recently, the coalition sent out questionnaires to City Council candidates to raise awareness among local politicians and gauge potential support.
They have some of that support in former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.
“We’re not talking about setting foreign policy here,” says McGinn, who believes noncitizens should have voting rights in Seattle elections and is eager to see the issue spark conversation in time for upcoming City Council elections. “We’re talking about police protection and crime and parks and potholes and schools.”
McGinn argues voting rights in this country have always reflected the values of the times — for better and for worse — and points out that citizenship wasn’t required to vote during Washington’s early days as a U.S. territory (though it was restricted by race and gender).
And like the immigrants who settled Washington Territory a century-and-a-half ago, many of today’s noncitizen newcomers are looking to put down roots and get involved in how Seattle runs.
“LPR’s [Lawful Permanent Residents] contribute to society exactly the way a citizen would,” says my friend, Ruchika Tulshyan, who’s originally from Singapore and moved to Seattle a little over two years ago when Amazon hired her husband. “We pay taxes, we follow the law, we are held to the exact same standards financially and in all fiduciary matters, but we’re not given the chance to vote.”
Tulshyan, who volunteers as a youth mentor and with numerous nonprofits around the city, says it’s frustrating to feel like she can’t influence local issues, such as equal pay for women, except by “talking about it.”
Immigrant advocates hope that Initiative 122 might help. The new initiative, on the November ballot, would create an opt-in system providing Seattle residents (including Lawful Permanent Residents) with $100 worth of campaign-finance vouchers. The hope is to engage people like Tulshyan in the political process, even if it falls short of voting.
“What we’re trying to do with I-122 is make sure that more people are given a voice,” says Eric González Alfaro of the immigrant-rights organization OneAmerica. “Especially people who have never been asked what they need out of a candidate.”
Legal Permanent Residents are already allowed to make campaign contributions, but Alfaro hopes that a new voucher system will encourage local politicians to engage with Seattle’s international populations, citizens and noncitizens alike.
“Elected officials have an opportunity to create immediate change in the quality of life a resident of Seattle has,” says Alfaro. “Even though they aren’t eligible to vote, they are still impacted by the decisions elected officials are making while in office.”
And bridging that divide, between local politicians and noncitizens living in Seattle, is what Corona hopes to do by campaigning for voting rights. He says it will be difficult, like all fights for expanded enfranchisement in this country have been. But like any political junkie, he believes in the power of democracy.
“It’s everyone’s goal, regardless of your political affiliation, for everyone to be involved in the political process,” says Corona. “That’s an idealistic thing we all should want.”