Bill Would Allow Non-Citizens to Vote in Local Elections

Matt Wickenheiser, Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel (Augusta, Maine), March 27, 2009

Lawmakers are preparing to consider a bill that would let communities choose to allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections.

Proponents argue that letting non-citizen immigrants vote on local issues would include them in the community, and provide incentive for them to pursue citizenship.

Critics say voting is a right that should be reserved for U.S. citizens, and some suggest that newcomers to the country don’t necessarily have the language skills or the knowledge of issues needed to make an informed vote.

The bill, LD 1195, was sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn. It was referred this week to the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.

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There’s a variety of legal Maine residents who are not U.S. citizens, said Alfond, including doctors, refugees, students, hockey players and more.

Some might live here legally for decades without becoming citizens, meaning they can’t vote on local issues that affect them, he said. And a citizen might move to the state for a year, take part in an election and then move away.

Alfond said that didn’t seem right.

Allowing that part of the community to vote would be inclusive, said Alfond, and would give more people a voice. It also would give them an incentive to become citizens, so they could vote in state and national elections as well, he said.

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Ron Hayduk, professor of political science at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and author of the book “Democracy for All,” said immigrants who are not citizens are allowed to vote in a number of communities.

Chicago, for instance, allows them to vote in school elections, and six towns in Maryland allow them to vote in all local elections. They can vote in the Massachusetts towns of Cambridge, Amherst and Newton, said Hayduk, and proposals have been made to do the same in Chelsea and Somerville, and likely will resurface in Boston after a 2007 defeat.

The basic argument for allowing non-citizens to vote is that groups excluded from voting are more likely to be discriminated against, said Hayduk.

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“Whenever you get more people to participate, you add legitimacy to that process,” said Dunlap [Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap]. “The voice of the public, I think, is extraordinarily important.”

Hans Von Spakovsky, a legal scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he sees several problems with allowing non-citizens to vote.

If local, state and federal elections are generally printed on the same ballot, they would have to be separated to allow non-citizens to vote, he said.

And getting a voter registration card could be a way to thwart federal labor laws, he said.

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Mohamud Barre, president of the Somali Culture and Development Association of Maine, said he’s concerned that many immigrants aren’t informed enough to vote.

“They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t speak English,” said Barre, who is originally from Somalia.

When immigrants get the right to vote through citizenship, said Barre, they’ve spent time learning about the country and working on language skills. That allows them to become informed, he said.

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Sam Udomsay, who came to this country from Thailand when he was only 4 and got his citizenship about 10 years ago, said he’s not sure many immigrants would have an idea of how the process works.

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Udomsay said that immigrant communities tend to have leaders. He said he would be concerned that if non-citizens didn’t understand the issues, they might just vote the way their leaders instructed them.

Udomsay also said that people should earn the right to vote.

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