The controversies over Zoe Baird's and Kimba Wood's babysitters taught us something about the situation of undocumented aliens in America: Even when they are front-page news, they are voiceless in public discussion. But this is true of all aliens, legal or not, and their silence flows from their political disfranchisement. In America, to be voteless is to be both invisible and stigmatized. Without the social standing conferred by suffrage, most aliens are unseen, unheard and unnoticed.
In the United States today, there are about 10 million legal aliens living in our midst, all but a handful completely disfranchised. Of course, we do not usually think of aliens, legal or illegal, as being "disfranchised,' because we assume that voting must be based on nation-state citizenship. We do not even think of aliens as having politics. They are here mainly for their physical survival and our convenience: to work as janitors, domestics, nannies and drivers. They are here to scrape by, not to govern. They inhabit Aristotle's realm of private necessity rather than the space of public deliberation. We don't pause to question the prevailing exclusion of aliens; they are meant to be ruled, not to share in ruling.
It was not always so in the United States. Before World War I, aliens voted in local, state and national elections in some twenty-two states and federal territories. Many even held public offices, like school board member, coroner or alderman. From the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed (including by several aliens), alien enfranchisement seemed to many states, such as Vermont and Virginia, the logical thing to do. In a regime built on federalism, state citizenship was deemed central and nation-state citizenship peripheral. The key suffrage qualifications in the states centered on property ownership, race and gender, not national .citizenship. To have excluded aliens would have implied, quite dangerously, that citizenship was the determining condition for voting at a time when most citizens could not vote. And so aliens--that is, propertied white male aliens--were written into the social contract. As one Pennsylvania judge put it in an 1809 case upholding alien voting in Pittsburgh: "The being an inhabitant, and the paying tax, are circumstances which give an interest in the borough .... A fight, therefore, to a voice... is rounded in natural justice."
Noncitizen voting was a factor in the coming of the Civil War. Northern states thought alien suffrage a matter of basic justice. "The progressive spirit of the age requires it," declared a delegate to the Michigan constitutional convention in 1850, which gave aliens voting rights. But Southern states despised the practice because they saw it as enfranchising hundreds of thousands of foreign-born people hostile to slavery. So the Senate was rife with controversy over alien suffrage. When the South seceded, the framers of the Confederate Constitution wrote into its Article I that "no person of foreign birth, [and] not a citizen of the Confederate States, shall be allowed to vote for any officer, civil or political, State or Federal."
After the Civil War,. the spirit of Reconstruction (and the need for new labor) spread alien suffrage throughout the South and farther west as well. Aliens came to figure importantly in the politics of a number of states; Texas, Florida, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois used alien suffrage as a pathway to, never a substitute for, citizenship. But the nation changed its mind about alien voting at the turn of the century, when immigrants became darker, more Mediterranean and politically suspect. The outbreak of anti-alien passions during World War I pretty much finished off the practice. The last state to give up alien suffrage was (Mr. President, please note) Arkansas in 1926.
Noncitizen voting may be an idea whose time has come again, at least at the local level. The 10 million legal aliens in the United States pay taxes to their local communities, their states and the federal government. …