PORTLAND — Should noncitizens be allowed to vote in city elections?
From the heartfelt arguments on both sides of the issue at a City Council public hearing Monday, it appears that a ballot question on noncitizen voting rights could be the most controversial local item on Nov. 2, overshadowing a proposed charter change allowing voters to elect a mayor.
After the hearing, councilors voted unanimously to put the question on the ballot – a procedural vote made necessary earlier this month when the City Clerk’s Office certified 4,522 signatures, just enough to place the referendum question before voters.
Supporters said that granting immigrants voting rights would allow them to better participate in the city’s civic life.
Opponents, however, said the right to vote should be reserved for those immigrants who make the effort to become citizens. They note that all legal immigrants have a right to apply for citizenship.
“You want to vote in this country, you have to put your hand over your heart and pledge allegiance,” said Barbara Campbell Harvey, a Portland resident who opposes the measure.
Other critics said noncitizens already have the ability to participate in the city’s civic life by voicing their opinions to city officials or speaking up at public meetings.
Robert Hains of Portland asked whether the city should establish a literacy test for noncitizens if the measure passed. He warned that the measure’s approval would encourage immigrants to move to the city.
“I predict the welfare rolls will go up,” he said. “This will be another magnet for foreign nationals to immigrate to Portland.”
Supporters say that citizenship in recent years has become expensive – $675 for people who have a green card. Also, they say the naturalization process is a long and difficult one, particularly for elderly immigrants who struggle to learn English.
The process requires applicants to show they can read, write, and speak basic English and have a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government. They also have to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.
The measure would apply only to noncitizens who can prove they have immigrated to the United States legally.
Granting noncitizens voting rights would help integrate immigrants, said Julie Reddy of Portland, who collected more than 700 signatures for the petition drive.
“We can fix a malfunctioning immigration system by being inclusive,” she said.
Alfred Jacob of Portland, a Sudanese immigrant who was a leader in the effort, said that children of immigrant families now make up 26 percent of the enrollment in Portland schools. He said the measure’s passage would encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s schools and the creation of school policies.
Immigrant families love the city, he said, and they have the same desires as other residents, such as providing a good education and safe neighborhoods for their children.
“There is a lot more we can do together,” he said. “This is not a threat to democracy. This is only a threat to the fear that if we include the immigrants, we will affect how the system works.”
Three city councilors joined the debate.
Councilor Jill Duson said she signed the petition so people could vote on it, but she said she will vote “no” on Nov. 2.
“I strongly support the notion that voting is a privilege of citizenship,” she said.
Councilor John Coyne said he would also vote to reject the measure.
Councilor David Marshall said he will vote “yes.”
Before the 1920s, many jurisdictions around the country allowed immigrants to vote even though they were not yet citizens, he said.
“I’m in favor of continuing that tradition,” he said.
State and federal law bars noncitizens from voting in state and federal elections. Portland would be the first municipality in Maine to grant voting rights to noncitizens. If the measure passes, a legal challenge is expected, because it’s a complex legal issue that has never been conclusively settled.
The League of Young Voters led the petition drive, which began in March after the Charter Commission voted 7-5 against recommending that the issue be put on the November ballot.
The commission, however, agreed to ask voters to change the city charter to allow for a popularly elected mayor every four years. The charter now stipulates that the mayor is elected by the City Council for a one-year term.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at [email protected]