While United States permanent residents enjoy many of the same rights as citizens, voting is not one of them. Green card holders may not vote in federal elections and are generally forbidden from voting in local and state elections as well—though not always.
The most important question is whether it’s legal for green card holders to vote. While in some cases, it is legal, as long as they meet certain criteria, before you fill out a voter registration card, you must know the law in your state definitively—because the immigration consequences of merely registering to vote when it is against the law are very serious indeed.
Who Can Vote in U.S. Elections?
In order to be allowed to vote in U.S. elections, you need to meet certain requirements. If you don’t meet these requirements and try to vote, you’ll break the law. Voters need to be:
- A U.S. citizen
- A resident of the state, according to that state’s requirements
- 18 years old on or before Election Day
- Registered to vote before your state’s deadlines
Non-citizens are barred from voting across the country, but even some citizens are not allowed to vote. Felony convictions and mental incapacitation can remove your right to vote, though rules vary from state to state.
Punishment for Voting as a Green Card Holder
Permanent residents face serious jail time, fines, and even exile from the U.S. for registering to vote, even before they actually cast a ballot. Registering to vote as a permanent resident is considered fraud because you’d be impersonating a U.S. citizen.
According to the Washington Post, a Texas green card holder was sentenced to eight years in prison, and likely deportation afterward, for voting in elections in 2012 and 2014. Even though the holder was brought here as an infant, it was still fraud because she hadn’t attained citizenship.
Accidentally Registering to Vote
The United States has an interest in getting all citizens to register to vote, but sometimes its efforts catch green cardholders. One example is with driver’s license registration. There is usually an option to register to vote when you get or renew your driver’s license. Sometimes, it’s done automatically unless you opt-out.
It’s crucial to let the DMV know that you’re a permanent resident so that you do not get registered. If you do end up receiving a voter registration card, speak with an immigration attorney so that you do not jeopardize your immigration status.
Remember, even if you never vote, just registering to vote could get you deported!
Historically, Green Card Holders Could Vote
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, as many as 40 states and U.S. territories allowed non-citizens to vote in state and sometimes federal elections. Arkansas was the last state to allow non-citizen voting, ending the practice in 1926. Since then, voting has been a right reserved only for citizens.
Even if your state allows you to vote in state and local elections as a green card holder, be wary of registering until you clearly know the rules. You do not want to lose your chance at citizenship because of accidentally registering in a federal election.
How Can a Permanent Resident Gain the Right to Vote?
In order to vote, you must become a U.S. citizen. In most cases, the path to citizenship for permanent residents is naturalization. Naturalization is an extensive and expensive process. In order to be eligible you must:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Be a permanent resident for at least 5 years (3 if married to a U.S. citizen)
- Have been physically present in the U.S. at least 30 months in the last 5 years
- Be able to read, write & speak basic English
- Be a person of good moral character
The application for naturalization is Form N-400. The application itself is long, complex, and includes a fee of $725. Also, you need to have a green card. Before you file Form N-400, it’s a good idea to consider getting help with your application. You can take a free citizenship eligibility quiz to prepare.