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The right to vote is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as a basic right of citizenship, but for immigrants, this is not necessarily the case. It all depends on a person's immigration status.
Voting Rights for Native U.S. Citizens
When America first gained independence, the right to vote was limited to white males who were at least 21 years old and owned property. Over time, those rights have been extended to all American citizens by the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments to the Constitution. Today, anyone who is a native-born U.S. citizen or has citizenship through their parents is eligible to vote in federal, state, and local elections once they reach 18 years of age. There are only a few restrictions on this right, such as:
- Residency: A person must have lived in a state for a period of time (usually 30 days) and must have documented proof of residence.
- Felony convictions: Persons with criminal convictions for major crimes generally lose their right to vote, although some states allow them to regain that right.
- Mental competency: Persons who have been declared mentally incompetent by a judge can lose their right to vote, something that's detailed in the Federal Voting Rights Act.
Each state has different requirements for elections, including voter registration. If you're a first-time voter, haven't voted in a while, or have changed your place of residence, it's a good idea to check with your state's secretary of state office to find out what requirements there may be.
Naturalized U.S. Citizens
A naturalized U.S. citizen is a person who was formerly a citizen of a foreign country before moving to the U.S., establishing residency, and then applying for citizenship. It's a process that takes years, and citizenship is not guaranteed. But immigrants who are granted citizenship have the same voting privileges as a natural-born citizen.
What does it take to become a naturalized citizen? For starters, a person must establish legal residence and live in the U.S. for five years. Once that requirement has been met, that person may apply for citizenship. This process includes a background check, an in-person interview, as well as a written and oral test. The final step is taking an oath of citizenship before a federal official. Once that's done, a naturalized citizen is eligible to vote.
Permanent Residents and Other Immigrants
Permanent residents are non-citizens living in the U.S. who have been granted the right to live and work permanently but do not have American citizenship. Instead, permanent residents hold Permanent Resident Cards, commonly known as a Green Card. These individuals are not allowed to vote in federal elections, although some states and municipalities, including Chicago and San Francisco, allow Green Card holders to vote. Undocumented immigrants are not allowed to vote in elections.
In recent years, election fraud has become a hot political topic and some states like Texas have imposed explicit penalties for people who vote illegally. But there have been few instances where people have been successfully prosecuted for voting illegally.