As We Celebrate Independence Day, Many New Citizens Still Left Out Of American Democracy
Should Be Uniformly Offered Voter Registration At Naturalization Ceremonies
WASHINGTON - As the nation celebrates the 234th Independence Day this July Fourth,
thousands of immigrants will take the citizenship oath at
naturalization ceremonies around the country. Yet, the promise of full
participation in our democracy continues to elude many of our newest
fellow citizens, up to millions around the country, according to a new
report by the nonpartisan public policy center Demos. The study proposes
that new United States citizens should be given voter registration
opportunities, which is allowable under existing federal law but
currently not in practice, the day they take the oath of citizenship.
The report, entitled A Citizen From Day One,
is authored by Tova Wang, who is a Senior Fellow at
Demos and one of the nation's leading voting rights and election reform
experts. Wang's report shows how naturalized citizens
continue to be under-represented in America's democracy by consistently
lower voter participation in elections than natural-born citizens. It
also shows that, in the last several decades, the numbers of newly
naturalized citizens has increased dramatically, which points to a
potentially growing under-representation in the American electorate of
"A Citizen From Day One" shows a clear path to increasing voter
participation of new citizens by proposing that US Citizenship and
Immigration Services (USCIS) offices provide voter registration
opportunities and assistance to all newly naturalized citizens right
after they take the oath of citizenship. The proposal outlines how these
sites can be designated to offer voter registration under the mandates
of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
"While Americans may debate the best way to bring noncitizens into
the civic life of our communities, there is widespread, strong agreement
that when someone from another country takes the affirmative step to
take the oath of loyalty and become a citizen of this country, he or she
should be welcomed and encouraged to be a part of our country and our
social and political life," said Wang. "Designating
USCIS offices under the mandates of the NVRA, which are extremely
effective when properly implemented, is the most obvious and direct way
to bring more new US citizens into our civic life and our democracy."
Key facts from the report:
--There were 38 million immigrants living in the United States as of
2008, of which 43% were naturalized U.S. citizens. Nearly one out of
every four people in the United States in 2008 was either an immigrant
or the child of an immigrant.
--Naturalizations grew at a record pace between 2006 and 2008, with a
total of 2.4 million immigrants becoming new citizens in the United
States during that time. The number of persons naturalized in the United
States increased 58 percent from 660,477 in 2007 to an all-time record
of 1,046,539 in 2008.
-- New Americans have not been participating in elections on par with
their native-born counterparts. In 2008, a year of historic turnout
generally and enormous interest in the election, the turnout numbers for
naturalized citizens barely improved relative to previous elections.
Nationwide, turnout among the native born was 64.4 percent, while among
naturalized Americans it was 54 percent. The disparities in certain
states were particularly stark.
--It is not that new Americans don't want to participate--once they
are registered, immigrants vote overwhelmingly, reinforcing the need to
facilitate voter registration. When they are registered, they vote at
rates on par with native born Americans.
-- In 2004, 72.9% of native born Americans were registered, while
only 61.2 percent of naturalized citizens were. At the time of the 2006
general election just over half (54.3%) of naturalized citizens were
registered to vote by Election Day. Native citizens were registered at a
rate of 68.6% during the 2006 election--a nearly 15 percentage point
discrepancy. In 2008, 71.8% of native born Americans were registered,
while just 60.5% of naturalized Americans were registered to vote.
--Where fully implemented, the agency provisions of the NVRA have
been extremely effective. and suggest a likelihood of success by USCIS
at naturalization ceremonies. For example, In Missouri, following
litigation to require compliance with the NVRA's requirements, that
state's Department of Social Services has submitted over 218,000 voter
registration applications to election officials, an average of over
11,000 per month. In the two years prior to the court order, the state's
public assistance agencies averaged only 649 registrations per month.
In North Carolina over 104,000 citizens have applied to register to vote
through public assistance agencies over three years of full compliance.
"On this 4th of July, like others before it, thousands of immigrants
are pledging their allegiance to the United States all across the
country. It is time, systematically and uniformly, to give every new
citizen the most basic, simple tool to becoming part of our democracy:
new citizens should be uniformly provided voter registration services
and assistance at their naturalization ceremonies," said Wang.
"As we approach another federal election season, this is a policy that
should be implemented as soon as is feasible."
A multi-issue national organization, Demos combines research, policy development, and advocacy to influence public debates and catalyze change. We publish books, reports, and briefing papers that illuminate critical problems and advance innovative solutions; work at both the national and state level with advocates and policymakers to promote reforms; help to build the capacity and skills of key progressive constituencies; project our values into the media by promoting Demos Fellows and staff in print, broadcast, and Internet venues; and host public events that showcase new ideas and leading progressive voices.