Non-citizens slowly acquire the right to vote

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Two Vermont cities have joined the short but growing list of jurisdictions that allow residents who are not U.S. citizens to vote in local elections.

Last week, the Vermont legislature overturned Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes, giving the green light to voter-approved changes to the city charters of Montpellier and Winooski. These cities now allow all residents over the age of 18 to vote in municipal elections, regardless of their citizenship status. Voting by non-citizens in federal elections remains illegal across the country.

The movement to allow all adults to vote in local elections has not had widespread success in modern times. Until recently, only San Francisco and nine cities in Maryland allowed non-citizens to vote in local or school board elections. While two Massachusetts cities have passed resolutions in recent years calling for allowing non-citizens to vote locally, the state legislature has yet to approve these changes. But these cities may soon have company.

Lawmakers in Washington, DC, Illinois and New York City are considering legislation this year that would offer voting to non-citizens in local elections, such as city council or school board. These proposals sparked the fierce debates that often accompany proposals on immigration and the right to vote. Some states, meanwhile, have moved in the opposite direction in recent years, explicitly banning non-citizens from voting.

In Vermont, supporters of the legislation have emphasized that non-citizens are taxpayers, arguing that they deserve to have a say in who represents them.

“People always think you have to earn our right to vote by becoming a citizen,” said Democratic state representative Hal Colson, who sponsored the Winooski bill. “I just don’t buy this. We are talking about a lot of the community that is closed.

Scott, in vetoing the city charter changes, said the issue deserved further consideration, but the bills would create an inconsistency in local electoral policy. Other Republican lawmakers who opposed the changes argued that it was unconstitutional to offer the vote to people who are not U.S. citizens.

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While the Vermont Constitution says that “anyone … who is a citizen of the United States” has the right to vote, supporters of the bills have said the language does not exclude non-citizens and that cities have control of their own local elections. Republican state representative Arthur Peterson, who voted against both bills, disagrees.

“If you’re not 18 or you’re not a citizen of the United States, I don’t see how you could get the vote,” Peterson said. “We have to have rules, and the [state] the constitution is our rule.

But those concerns haven’t stopped lawmakers in other states from considering similar proposals.

With a large number of foreign-born parents in Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area, where one-fifth of the population is foreign-born, these taxpayers should have a say in the education of their children, said Illinois Senator Celina Villanueva, Democrat. . She introduced legislation this year that would allow non-citizens to vote in local school board elections.

“We basically do taxation without representation,” she said. “We have a large population of non-citizens in this state and across the country and they should make their voices heard, especially when it comes to the education of their children.”

This legislative effort may take years, she said, but her experience as an immigrant rights organizer has prepared her for a longer struggle. adults, regardless of their immigration status. His voting bill is still awaiting a committee hearing.

Adopting these measures can also signal a city’s support for its immigrant residents, said Brianne Nadeau, a member of the DC Democratic Council, which represents the district’s largest immigrant ward. In addition to DC calling itself a sanctuary city and providing healthcare to immigrants living illegally in the country, Nadeau wants all DC residents to be able to vote on local issues that directly affect them.

“We all deserve to have a voice in that represents us,” she said. “I can’t control what is allowed federally, but I can control what we do locally. “

Her bill has a good chance of being passed, she said, as half of the council co-introduced the bill with her. This included the chairman of the Council’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees the early debates on such legislation. This is the fifth attempt to pass similar legislation in the past decade, but new voices in the Council could help this time around, she said.

Because the District of Columbia exists under federal scrutiny, Congress would have the right to “disapprove” a new DC law, but that’s unlikely at this time as Democrats control both houses and the presidency.

While Congress in 1996 banned non-citizens from voting in federal elections, state constitutions vary. No state explicitly allows non-citizens to vote in statewide elections, such as for governor, nor have there been any serious proposals to legalize voting. statewide by non-citizens. Ambiguous language could, however, open the door to more local electoral statutes.

But some lawmakers and state residents are trying to change their constitutions to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Over the past three years, voters in Alabama, Colorado, Florida and North Dakota have passed voting initiatives that amend their state constitutions to ensure that only US citizens have the right to vote. . A similar voting initiative proposed in Maine failed to garner enough signatures this year.

“The idea that we would give the legal vote to people who have not shown loyalty to choose the United States over another country is amazing,” said John Loudon, who led the Florida effort through its political group Citizen Voters. “It’s an extreme vision to push this. “

Moreover, he argued, it would only confuse the issue. It could even cause non-citizens to accidentally and illegally vote in federal elections, he said. He highlighted recent rollouts of automatic voter registration in other states.

When California and Illinois implemented laws in recent years that automatically register people to vote when they visit motor vehicle departments, hundreds of non-citizens were accidentally registered to vote due to issues. techniques. At least 16 Illinois non-citizens voted due to the confusion.

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Legal voting for non-citizens is not new to the United States, however.

From the country’s founding until 1926, 40 states at various times allowed non-citizens to vote in local, state and federal elections, said Ron Hayduk, professor of political science at San Francisco State University. , who wrote on this issue. Non-citizens could not only vote, but also hold office.

But this right has been taken away at various times in American history. From the days of the Aliens and Sedition Laws of 1798 to the rise of Nativism after World War I, anti-immigrant sentiment has led to the removal of these voting rights by legislatures in most states, a he declared.

Lawmakers from New York to California who want to bring the franchise back to non-citizens have called Jessie Carpenter, the non-partisan clerk of Takoma Park, Md. The city has offered the right to vote to all residents, citizens or not, in local elections since 1993.

“It’s a point of pride here,” Carpenter said. “We want as many people as possible to benefit from the right to vote. ”

Of the 13,500 registered voters in the community just north of Washington, DC, it is estimated that only a few hundred are non-citizens. Carpenter thinks she and other city officials could do a better job of raising awareness, by educating the local immigrant community about their voting rights.

A change in policy can help. Since the extension of local elections to residents aged 16 and over, local election officials no longer track voters by citizenship status; they only have one list of voters who can participate in municipal elections, which the city administers. It could reassure non-citizens, who may have feared retaliation, to put their names on public voting lists, Carpenter said.

Implementing this new policy in cities across Vermont will be easy, Montpellier City Clerk John Odum said.

He plans to maintain a registered voters list parallel to the state list, but his will include non-citizens. He also had to modify the city’s voter registration form to make it clear that people simply need to be residents to vote locally. The only big open questions for Odum, he said, are how he will present the ballots to non-citizen voters so that they can vote only on municipal issues, and how he will train election officials. .

But there are still some in Vermont who are skeptical of this new change, including Peterson. In addition to questioning the constitutionality of letting non-citizens vote, he also fears that non-citizens will have a say in how state funds, provided by taxpayers, are allocated. Municipal elections, he said, could have statewide funding implications.

“You could have a person in a city assigning taxes to someone else in the state,” he said, “and that’s gross exaggeration. “

In Winooski, the most racially diverse community in northern New England – a refugee sanctuary where nearly one in five residents was not born in the United States – many residents believe offering the right to vote to all residents, citizens and non-citizens, is essential.

“I think our community will get better,” said Liz Edsell, chair of a resident-led charter commission that proposed the change to city council.

“It’s a chance to try something different, something close to what people believe in when they think of democracy.”

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