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Citizenship and voting

13 May, 2008

This week I am giving a lecture on the changing meanings of citizenship, so I was struck by an article in The New York Times that reports on a controversial new measure on Missouri that requires people to show proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. This measure is aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from voting, but it is criticised for excluding from the vote poor Americans who cannot furnish proof of citizenship because they don’t have passports.

This is another reminder of three facts: (1) that though the United States is a young country, its political system, among those existing, is almost uniquely old; (2) that despite 9/11, despite Guantanamo, in some important ways civil liberties have been taken less; and that (3) despite America often being identified with globalization, its citizens are less internationally mobile than those of many other rich countries.

In Europe, the mere idea that an illegal immigrant would vote is absurd. In most countries, illegal immigrants don’t even dare to go into the streets, lest they be apprehended by the next police officer and sent into detention. In the US, despite the spread of immigration detention (the NYT recently ran a story on the death of a man in immigration detention), the idea that ordinary police should join immigration agents in ferreting out illegal migrants is still widely rejected. In Europe, it simply goes without saying. The idea that ordinary citizens may not possess proof of their citizenship is similarly bewildering; every state except Britain has long made internal identity cards compulsory, and Britain has recently joined.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 May, 2008 12:42 am

    interesting article and reflections, indeed. modern citizenship seems to be intrinsically connected to that of a nation-state, so in a way requiring proof of citizenship is reinforcing the idea that rights belong to those who are part of the nation. but your reflection on the fact that in Europe, this whole thing would be unconceivable from the start because nobody would even think of immigrants in relation to voting is really interesting – it may be that in the case of immigration countries like the US, Canada or Australia, the idea of the immigrant has been quite differently conceived from Europe, yet even these immigration countries fell back on the nation-state model and adopted it in spite of its problems.

  2. Jacob permalink
    14 May, 2008 1:05 am

    I’m not sure about the idea that illegal immigrants in Europe don’t go out on the streets; in fact, in France (at least in Paris and Lille) there are weekly demonstrations by “Sans-Papiers”, mostly North & West-African undocumented migrants in public squares/streets. Not to mention the fact that many undocumented migrants across Europe make their livings on the streets in highly visible locations.

  3. 16 May, 2008 2:22 pm

    The idea that undocumented immigrants are voting in the US *should* be absurd — even the proponents of these voter ID laws (which are on the books in a number of states, including Arizona where I live) have admitted that they don’t have any evidence of voter fraud that ID laws would prevent.

    And while the US may have some de jure and de facto sanctuary cities, undocumented immigrants — as well as many Latin@s with legal status — are afraid to go out in the street because of the anti-Latin-immigration climate.

  4. Daniel Rosenblatt permalink
    20 May, 2008 11:44 pm

    It would be better to say that the ostensible purpose of these laws is to prevent illegal immigrants from voting. In fact they reflect a calculation on the part of the Republican Party that those citizens who like identification are also those who are more likely to vote Democratic. Really the laws are an attempt to suppress participation by legal voters.

  5. 21 May, 2008 10:02 pm

    Small correction – the plans for ID cards in Britain are at an early stage, are very controversial and becoming increasingly unpopular, and the opposition parties have rejected them, so there’s still a chance that ID cards will not be made compulsory here.

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