PORTLAND — A petition drive aimed at giving non-citizens the right to vote in city elections begins today.

A five-member committee plans to meet at 10 a.m. at City Hall to deliver an affidavit initiating a petition to amend the city’s charter. To put the question to voters in November, the committee must gather the signatures of about 4,500 registered Portland voters by July 14.

The petition would force a referendum on giving voting rights to non-citizens who can prove they are legal residents. It would not allow non-citizens to hold public office.

The effort to start a petition drive began this month, after the Portland Charter Commission voted 7-5 to reject a proposal to put the issue on the ballot in November.

John Spritz, one of the commissioners who voted “no,” said it’s better that the question appear on the ballot as the result of a petition drive than because of a vote by the 12-member commission.

“If it should come before voters, it should come from the bottom up rather than top down,” he said.

He said the issue is an emotional one, raising questions about civil rights and what it means to be an American.

Considering the anti-immigrant comments he has read about the issue online, he said he worries that the debate could easily turn in an “ugly direction.”

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. said he hopes that people will express themselves in a constructive and civil manner.

The League of Young Voters will lead the petition campaign.

The committee is made up of Will Everitt, the league’s state director; Michael Brennan, a former state senator; Jenna Vendil, a member of the Portland School Committee; Mohammed Dini, president of the Somali Student Association at the University of Southern Maine; and Alfred Jacob, a youth leader in the Sudanese community.

People who circulate the petitions are required to be registered Portland voters.

Dini, 24, a U.S. citizen, said Somali elders initially expressed doubt that the effort would have any chance of success. But many of them are now hopeful.

In the past, the city’s various immigrant communities have been isolated from each other, he said, but now they are working together, along with non-immigrant supporters.

“It brings the whole community as one,” he said. “That’s the beautiful thing about it.”

Supporters of the effort say that becoming a citizen is now such a long and expensive process that it is a barrier to participation in civic life for many immigrants, particularly older people for whom learning English is difficult.

Vendil, a School Committee member whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, said that 25 percent of the students in the city’s schools are learning English as a second language.

Many of their parents won’t become citizens until their children graduate, she said.

Giving those parents the right to vote would empower them so they feel more comfortable getting involved in the schools, she said. “The sooner that can happen, the stronger our schools can be.”

Naomi Mermin, a Charter Commission member who voted against putting the question on the ballot, said she will vote against it if it appears on the ballot.

More immigrants should vote, she said. The solution, though, is to change federal policies that make it difficult for immigrants to become citizens.

Also, she said, it’s uncertain whether state law even allows non-citizens to vote. Rather than amend the city charter, supporters of the issue should focus on changing state law, she said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected] nan, former state senator; Jenna Vendil, a member of the Portland School Committee; Mohammed Dini, president of the Somali Student Association at the University of Southern Maine; and Alfred Jacob, a youth leader in the Sudanese community.

People who circulate the petitions are required to be registered Portland voters.

Dini, 24, a U.S. citizen, said Somali elders initially expressed doubt that the effort would have any chance of success. But many of them are now hopeful.

In the past, the city’s various immigrant communities have been isolated from each other, he said, but now they are working together, along with non-immigrant supporters.

“It brings the whole community as one,” he said. “That’s the beautiful thing about it.”

Supporters of the effort say that becoming a citizen is now such a long and expensive process that it is a barrier to participation in civic life for many immigrants, particularly older people for whom learning English is difficult.

Vendil, a School Committee member whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, said that 25 percent of the students in the city’s schools are learning English as a second language.

Many of their parents won’t become citizens until their children graduate, she said.

Giving those parents the right to vote would empower them so they feel more comfortable getting involved in the schools, she said. “The sooner that can happen, the stronger our schools can be.”

Naomi Mermin, a Charter Commission member who voted against putting the question on the ballot, said she will vote against it if it appears on the ballot.

More immigrants should vote, she said. The solution, though, is to change federal policies that make it difficult for immigrants to become citizens.

Also, she said, it’s uncertain whether state law even allows non-citizens to vote. Rather than amend the city charter, supporters of the issue should focus on changing state law, she said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected]