The Right to Vote Under Local Law
73 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2016 Last revised: 14 Sep 2017
Date Written: September 2017
A complete analysis of the right to vote requires at least three levels of inquiry: the U.S. Constitution and federal law, state constitutions and state law, and local laws that confer voting rights for municipal elections. But most voting rights scholarship focuses on only federal or state law and omits any discussion of the third category. This Article—the first to explore in depth the local right to vote—completes the trilogy. Cities and towns across the country are expanding the right to vote in municipal elections to include sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, noncitizens, nonresident property owners, and others. Berkeley, California, for example, recently lowered the voting age to sixteen for its school board elections.
This Article highlights these developments, encourages local voter expansions, and provides a test for courts to use when facing a judicial challenge to these rules. If states are “laboratories of democracy” that may experiment with social policies, then municipalities are “test tubes of democracy” that also can try out novel democratic rules, such as broadening the right to vote, on a smaller scale. Historically, some voter expansions, such as the elimination of property requirements and the women’s suffrage movement, enjoyed early successes at the local level. Local voting rights, then, can serve as catalysts for broader reforms as they “trickle across” to other municipalities and “trickle up” to states and Congress.
As a matter of policy, local jurisdictions should enfranchise anyone who has a sufficient stake in local affairs and has the proper incentives and ability to make informed choices about who should lead them—which might include sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, noncitizens (who are lawful permanent residents), nonresident property owners, felons, or others. States with barriers to local voting laws, through substantive voter qualifications or lack of “home rule” authorization to localities, should amend their state constitutional provisions or statutes. (An Appendix presents a fifty-state chart on the possibility in each state of enacting local voting laws.) Courts should defer to local laws that expand the right to vote as a means of local democracy, but should not defer to restrictions on the right to vote because limiting who may vote harms the ideal of democratic inclusion. Robust protection of the right to vote depends on local voting rules as an early component of the reform effort. Enhanced local voting rights will produce a more representative local government, create a habit of voting for various groups—such as younger voters—that will ameliorate low turnout, and strengthen local democracy.
Keywords: election law, voting rights, right to vote, local law
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