Noncitizen voting rights bill puts focus on R.I. Constitution

A first for Rhode Island, proposed legislation follows national trend

By: - March 15, 2023 5:30 am
woman with lomng dark hair and black leather jacket at desk talking

Luz Rojas, 56, of Cumberland, a greeter and screener for The Rhode Island Lead Safe Homes Program, is excited about the possibility of municipalities granting voting rights to noncitizen residents. (Photo by Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

A bill that would allow municipalities to extend the vote to noncitizens in local elections doesn’t explicitly call for revising the Rhode Island Constitution, but that’s what it will take, State House observers say.

“So much of what’s covered in the state are issues that are repetitive,” Common Cause Executive Director John Marion said. “This is completely new so you don’t know where people fall on it. I think if this is going to move forward, it’s going to require a Constitutional amendment.”

H5461 would allow boards of canvassers in municipalities to set up their own rules and systems within legal bounds to open up voting if they choose. The bill sponsored by Providence Democrat Rep. Enrique Sanchez leaves it to local governments to decide which noncitizens would be allowed to vote.

“It is time that residents who are not citizens are given the opportunity to vote in municipal elections across the state,” said Sanchez, whose district includes parts of Providence’s West End and Olneyville, home to many Latin America-born residents.

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Democratic State Rep. Enrique Sanchez is serving his first term representing parts of Providence’s West End and Olneyville.

Co-sponsor Rep. David Morales, a Democrat who represents Providence’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, said the bill aims to give a voice to those living in a community on matters that directly affect them. 

“It’s important to advocate for communities who have been contributing and paying taxes yet who have no say in governance,” Morales said.

According to Article II, Section 1, of the Rhode Island Constitution, U.S. citizens 18 and over with a minimum state and municipal residency of 30 days before the election have a right to vote. 

So the proposed legislation would require changing the Constitution, which requires voter approval at a general election. Voters may consider individual amendments on ballot questions approved by the General Assembly or a package of revisions endorsed by delegates at a constitutional convention before being sent to voters for consideration.

Noncitizens allowed to vote in some local elections, spurring backlash from GOP

Rhode Island was the last state to have a full constitutional convention back in January 1986 when it was held at the State House and the Garrahy Judicial Complex in Providence. Voters the following November approved 11 of the 14 ballot questions that emerged from the convention. 

Every 10 years, voters have the opportunity to decide if there should be a convention to amend or revise the Constitution. Voters approved the 1984 Constitutional Convention question but rejected the question in 1994, 2004 and 2014.

Common Cause Rhode Island does not yet have a position on whether there should be a convention, Marion said. The organization opposed the question when it was on the ballot in 2004 and took a neutral position on the question in 2014. “Right now there aren’t organized efforts for or against a convention that I’m aware of, so it’s difficult to judge momentum,” he said. 

The only group expressly prohibited from voting in Rhode Island is anyone currently incarcerated on a felony charge. That has led to suggestions that the absence of language prohibiting noncitizens from voting means no amendment would be necessary. 

Not likely, according to Roger Williams University Professor of Law Peter Margulies. 

“The Rhode Island Constitution, in its voting provisions, seems to be currently limited to U.S. citizens,” Margulies said. “That suggests that a constitutional amendment might be required.

“In legal interpretation,” he added, “silence implies exclusion.”

Residents excited about voting prospects 

Until asked by the Rhode Island Current, the idea of voting as a noncitizen was not on stylist Elizabeth Cuevas’ radar. 

woman standing in hair salaon
“It sounds like a good idea to me,” stylist Elizabeth Cuevas of Disnalda Beauty Salon in Providence says of a bill that would let municipalities decide whether to grant voting rights to noncitizens. (Photo by Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

“It sounds like a good idea to me,” Cuevas, 51, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said in Spanish during a break at Disnalda Beauty Salon in Olneyville. She said she gained her legal permanent resident status two years ago. As such, she cannot vote and must wait another three years to apply for naturalization by federal law.  

“Perhaps now we’ll be able to change things,” she added. “We have the right to feel like a part of the conversation and that our voices are heard.”

For Luz Rojas, 56, of Cumberland, the idea elicited genuine excitement. 

“We did not come here to live off of the backs of others,” Rojas, an immigrant from Medellín, Colombia, and a greeter and screener for the Rhode Island Lead Safe Homes Program at Progresso Latino in Central Falls, said in Spanish. “We came here to work and earned our right to vote.”

Rojas said she gained her residency 24 years ago, but over the course of raising a family and attending to other responsibilities, she simply could not find the time to go through the process. 

She said she considers the power to vote, even at only the municipal level, a powerful tool to enable communities to push for funding to support schools, infrastructure, and other critical needs. 

“It’s progress for the moment,” she said. “It’s a step forward. When you don’t know how to walk, you crawl until someone teaches you how to walk. That’s where we are now as a community.”

Rojas added she saw potential for greater voting rights for noncitizens in Rhode Island, should they gain the vote now and show their strength.

“If you have the power, you can make it happen,” she said.

Legal challenges and uncertainty

There have been challenges elsewhere to noncitizen voting rights. Supreme Court of the State of New York Justice Ralph Porzio last summer struck down a New York City ordinance that would have allowed noncitizen legal residents to vote in municipal elections. He said the state’s constitution only extended the franchise to U.S. citizens. An appeal to the ruling is currently making its way through courts.

Even cheerleaders for expanding voting rights for noncitizens are uncertain of its chances.

“It’s an interesting bill and it could be really impactful but I think we have a lot of work to do educating leaders and the public on what it entails,” said Marcela Betancur, executive director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University. 

“It’s about educating around the misconceptions of who would be able to vote. What can they vote on?”

The language of the bill leaves those questions up to the municipalities, Margulies said.

“The provision does not declare which type of residents can be included,” he said. “I assume that was done because the drafters felt local flexibility was important and it makes the bill more politically palatable.”

Logistical hurdles for municipalities 

Another consideration would be the logistics of Election Day.

“In Rhode Island, all of our elections are at once,” Marion said. “New York municipal elections are decoupled from state elections. They don’t have the election administration problems we’d have.” 

The state’s voter rolls are contained in the Central Voter Registration System, which is connected to records at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Marion said. In order to grant voting rights to noncitizens, cities and towns would have to create an independent voter roll and separate ballots, a logistical hurdle that increases election costs.

I think this is a welcome change,” Marguiles said. “I think it will require a constitutional amendment.

“Does that lessen the likelihood that this will become law? Yes. Because amending the Constitution is always harder.”


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