PORTLAND – A group of residents took out petitions Monday aimed at giving non-citizens the right to vote in city elections. The group needs about 4,500 signatures to force a referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot. Its leaders plan to collect 5,000.
“We have only 4,999 to go,” said Michael Brennan after signing his name to the top of a petition after he and other organizers left the City Clerk’s office at City Hall.
The group must collect the signatures by July 14. The number that’s required equals 20 percent of Portland’s number of voters in the last gubernatorial election.
It’s a daunting task, say some who have experience leading petition campaigns. Yet this effort, they say, has two big factors in its favor.
First, the League of Young Voters, one the most effective political groups in the city, is leading the effort. Moreover, the primary election on June 8 gives petitioners a rich opportunity for gathering signatures.
Given the campaign’s advantages, it’s likely that the question will make it to the ballot, said Alan Caron, who in 1991 helped collect enough signatures statewide to force a referendum that stopped a Maine Turnpike widening plan.
He said the June 8 primary is key. “You’ve got a good grass-roots network and voters coming together all on one day.”
Signature gatherers will have to go door-to-door and be visible at public places and events, said Ted O’Meara, who has done consulting for several statewide referendum campaigns, including successful efforts to establish term limits and overturn the beverage tax.
“You need a well-organized group behind it and people who are committed,” he said. “It all comes down to a function of numbers. Do you have 100 people willing to spend a whole Saturday fanning out over the city collecting signatures?”
He said there is no better place for gathering signatures than outside a polling place.
“You know everybody is registered to vote. They are all from the city. They’re all in a civic frame of mind. That’s a big help,” he said.
Petition leaders plan to make June 8 the focus of the effort. Will Everitt, state director of the League of Young Voters, said petitioners plan to get 1,000 to 1,500 signatures before June 8.
On the day of the primaries, the goal is 2,500 signatures, which would leave the group five weeks to get the rest.
Everitt said signature gatherers will be at post offices, churches and public events such as the Old Port Festival in June. People will also go door-to-door.
He said 30 people have agreed to circulate petitions. The group won’t start gathering signatures before its leaders meet on Wednesday to devise a plan for covering the city.
On March 11, the city’s Charter Commission voted 7-5 against a proposal to give voting rights to non-citizens. One issue was whether giving non-citizens voting rights could withstand a legal challenge.
Portland would be the first municipality in Maine to grant voting rights to resident aliens. The charter change would require non-citizens to prove they are legal residents to get their names on the city’s voting rolls. They could not vote in state or federal elections.
Last year, state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, submitted a bill to allow non-citizens to vote statewide. It was defeated in the House 186-11.
Alfond said the petition effort in Portland will succeed because the League of Young Voters has many committed volunteers, including students at the University of Southern Maine.
Although non-citizens are not allowed to circulate petitions, many immigrants who have become citizens will be helping, Alfond said.
Brennan said the League of Young Voters can deliver.
“They have the people power and the organizational structure to make it work.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]