Portland, Maine, Weighs Letting Noncitizens Vote

Clarke Canfield, WTOP-FM (Washington, D.C.), October 23, 2010

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Portland residents will vote Nov. 2 on a proposal to give legal residents who are not U.S. citizens the right to vote in local elections, joining places like San Francisco and Chicago that have already loosened the rules or are considering it.

Noncitizens hold down jobs, pay taxes, own businesses, volunteer in the community and serve in the military, and it’s only fair they be allowed to vote, Rwaganje said.

“We have immigrants who are playing key roles in different issues of this country, but they don’t get the right to vote,” said Rwaganje, 40, who moved to the U.S. because of political strife in his native Congo and runs a nonprofit that offers financial advice to immigrants.

Opponents of the measure say immigrants already have an avenue to cast ballots–by becoming citizens. Allowing noncitizens to vote dilutes the meaning of citizenship, they say, adding that it could lead to fraud and unfairly sway elections.

“My primary objection is I don’t think it is right, I don’t think it is just, I don’t think it is fair,” Portland resident Barbara Campbell Harvey said.

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The Maine ballot questions asks whether legal immigrants who are city residents but not U.S. citizens should be allowed to vote in municipal elections. If the measure passes, noncitizens would be able to cast ballots in school board, city council and school budget elections, as well as other local issues, but not on federal or statewide matters.

The Maine League of Young Voters, which spearheaded the drive to force the question on the ballot, estimates there are 5,000 to 7,500 immigrants in Portland, roughly half of whom are not U.S. citizens. They come from more than 100 countries, with the two largest groups from Somalia and Latin America.

On a recent day in a small lunchroom at the Al-Amin Halal Market, a group of Somali men ate lunch and talked in their native language. A sign advertised the day’s offerings, including hilib ari (goat), bariis (rice) and baasto (spaghetti).

Abdirizak Daud, 40, moved to Minneapolis 18 years ago before coming to Portland in 2006. He hasn’t been able to find a job. Some of his nine children have attended Portland schools, and he’d like to have a say in who’s looking over the school system and the city, he said.

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“I like the Democrats. I want to vote for Democrats, but I don’t have citizenship,” he said.

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[More information on the effort to give noncitizens the right to vote can be found here.]

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