Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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One way to look at legislation allowing undocumented people and other immigrants to vote in D.C. elections is as a necessary expansion of the franchise, offering often-marginalized communities a greater say in matters directly affecting them. Another way is that it might open the door to “strangers” influencing local races even though they lack the necessary civic education to tackle such weighty matters.

So says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, at least, though she’s in the distinct minority on that point. The Council voted 12-1 Tuesday to advance the “Local Resident Voting Rights Act,” putting the bill just one vote away from becoming law. 

The legislation has been batted around for years in D.C. (a certain Ward 4 councilmember named Muriel Bowser was an early backer of the idea, in fact). But it only gained serious forward momentum in recent months, culminating in a vote out of the Council’s decidedly conservative Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety last week to send it before the full, 13-member body. All of those members except for Cheh had nice things to say about the bill, setting up some tense debates in what was an otherwise sleepy legislative meeting.

The retiring Ward 3 lawmaker expressed a few quibbles with the bill’s general purpose, which is to give permanent residents of the country the right to vote in local elections (even if they’re undocumented or otherwise lack citizenship). Yet Cheh voiced concerns that someone who is “a complete stranger to our community and our nation” would get the chance to vote in D.C. after living here for just 30 days to establish residence. She argued instead for more of an “anchor” like a 60-day wait.

“I find it unacceptable to say that somebody who has had no connection whatsoever with the United States, with its culture, its democracy, can be dropped off here, persist for 30 days and vote in local elections,” Cheh said. “I think it’s quite foolish not to expect a little bit more from someone dropped off here, who manages to eke out 30 days of residency, and can then vote in a local election.”

Much like Cheh’s previous controversial comments on housing voucher holders earlier this year, this sentiment landed like a lead balloon. Her colleagues did not waste time poking holes in her argument, noting that none of the other 15 municipalities to allow non-citizen voting set different rules based on citizenship status. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen reasoned that things should be no different for immigrants than they should be for someone who moves to D.C. from another state. 

“Strangers from all over our country are welcome here, and strangers from all over the country can move here and vote here after 30 days,” said Allen, who chairs the judiciary committee.

At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson also noted that such residency requirements for voting are typically drawn up by Republicans seeking to make it more difficult for college students to exercise their rights. By this point, however, Cheh said she recognized she was “in the minority on this,” and backed down a bit. 

The strong show of support for the legislation from the rest of the Council makes it a good bet to pass when it comes up for a second vote, likely at the next legislative meeting on Nov. 1. But it still needs to be funded to actually take effect—it’s being moved with the dreaded “subject to appropriations” clause attached, which means it can’t be implemented until lawmakers find money to put it into practice.

The Office of the Chief Financial Officer estimates it will take $1.6 million over the next four fiscal years to fund the bill, largely stemming from costs associated with updating D.C.’s technical systems to process such a change. The money will also pay for educational efforts for these new voters—elections officials noted during a previous hearing on the bill that they want to ensure non-citizens don’t inadvertently vote in federal races, where D.C. has no control over their eligibility, and they’re planning outreach and other ballot design changes to adapt to this new reality.

The real-world impacts of any delays in the process were on display Tuesday in an unusually clear way. The Council also debated small changes to separate legislation establishing a new Office of Migrant Services, which is designed to primarily serve people bused to the District from Texas and Arizona.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau backed an amendment to narrow which migrants are affected by the bill, which bars new arrivals from enjoying all the same protections as most other homeless people in the city (much to the chagrin of some advocates). Nadeau’s amendment clarifies that people with open immigration cases who arrived in D.C. before the busing began will still be eligible for these services, a proposal that all lawmakers except for Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George supported. With issues like these directly impacting immigrant communities on the agenda, it couldn’t hurt to have more of them participating in the political process.

“It is quite the contrast that at the same time we’re offering them the right to vote, we’re locking them out of services,” Lewis George said.