DENVER | Voters in Colorado, Florida and Alabama passed ballot measures Tuesday that codify what is already law: That only U.S. citizens 18 and older can vote. The passage of the largely-symbolic measures has triggered questions about why the pro-Trump group behind them spent time and money on the effort.
The amendments passed overwhelmingly in all three states, including by a nearly 8-to-1 ratio in Alabama and Florida. Before the 2020 election, North Dakota and Arizona were the only state constitutions that specified non-citizens could not vote in state or local elections.
A former GOP state legislator from Missouri who led the effort said the ballot measures were needed to combat recent changes that allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in some local elections.
Opponents counter that the measures are unnecessary and fuel anti-immigrant sentiment.
On the Colorado ballot, the question read: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution requiring that to be qualified to vote at any election an individual must be a United States citizen?” The Alabama and Florida ballots had similar language.
Had the measures failed, it would have kept Colorado’s state’s constitutional language of “allowing every eligible U.S. citizen to vote in Colorado elections.”
Julian Camera, manager for a campaign that opposed the measure in Colorado and field organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said the ballot language is misleading.
“They’re giving voters the impression that there’s not already a citizenship requirement to vote in almost all elections nationwide,” Camera said.
A Florida-based organization called Citizen Voters, Inc., funded a majority of the state campaigns for these amendments — including $1.4 million towards Colorado’s efforts, according to public filings to the Secretary of State.
The group’s founder is John Loudon, a former Republican state senator in Missouri and past advisor to America First Policies, a group supporting President Donald Trump. Loudon said the ballot amendments were needed because the current constitutional language isn’t strong enough.
“The language that we have now is objectively, provably not sufficient because of all the successful efforts to give legal voting rights to non-citizens, at least in local and school board elections all across the country,” Loudon said.
Cities across the U.S. have considered measures in varying degrees to allow non-citizens such as legal permanent residents, also known as green card holders, or immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission and student visa holders to vote in local elections for school boards or town councils. Many attempts have failed, including a New York City bill that aimed to grant green-card holders and immigrants with work visas the ability to vote in city elections.
San Francisco allows noncitizen residents of the city to vote in school board elections if the voter is a parent or legal guardian of a child in the school system. In Maryland, 11 municipalities allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.
“It seems like there’s a lot of energy being expended to give these rights away and dilute the franchise, dilute the power of the vote to people who are fully committed,” Loudon said.
In Alabama, the Republican leader of the state Senate, President Pro Tempore Del Marsh sponsored the measure in 2019. It was approved by both chambers of the Alabama Legislature without a dissenting vote and put on the ballot for voter consideration.
Denise Maes, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, called the amendment “mean-spirited” and “wrong.” She said the Colorado initiative was intended to suppress voting in Colorado — including 17-year-olds who previously qualified to vote in primaries if they turned 18 by the November election under a Colorado law passed just before the March presidential primary.
The amendment would eliminate these rights due to the new language stating “only” those 18 or older are eligible. Camera says he expects legal battles to determine whether the new amendment will override previous law.
“By passing it’s also giving power to a narrative that is unwelcoming to immigrants in our state and it drives fear in voters by making them believe that we need to protect our communities from immigrants which is purely baseless, xenophobic and divisive,” Camera said.
Loudon’s stance on voting rights emanated from his great-great-grandmother who worked towards women’s suffrage. He argues that the right to vote was “hard-fought” and should be preserved for “committed citizens” — namely, those who buy a home and raise a family in a specific area.
Loudon believes the right to vote in local elections is important because it’s where decisions are made for which streets get fixed, what curriculum is taught, or where the buses run.
Camera counters that all these things are public utilities that non-citizens and green-card-holders pay taxes for.
Loudon said he plans to take his ballot measures to other states in future elections, though he declined to say which states he’s targeting. He said he’s optimistic he’ll have success elsewhere as he did in Colorado, Florida and Alabama in Tuesday’s election.
“We’re on a roll,” he said.
AP reporter Kimberly Chandler in Alabama contributed to this article.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Find AP’s full election coverage at APNews.com/Election2020.