PORTLAND – A proposal on the city’s ballot to give noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections was the focus of a student-moderated forum Wednesday at Portland High School.

The forum, hosted by Antoinette Skillings’ law and public policy class, included residents on both sides of the issue, advocates for immigrants and city officials who will enact the proposal if it’s approved. The forum was videotaped and will air on local cable television starting Tuesday.

The ballot proposal would allow legal residents of Portland who aren’t U.S. citizens to vote in City Council and School Committee elections, on school budgets and on local issues.

The council put the proposal on the ballot after the League of Young Voters led an effort to gather 4,522 signatures in favor of considering the question.

The league began the petition drive after Portland’s Charter Commission, which produced the proposal for a popularly elected mayor that’s on the Nov. 2 ballot, voted 7-5 against putting the noncitizen-voting question on the ballot. Some commissioners said they thought the question should come from citizens, while others said the issue should be addressed at the state or federal level.

Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, began Wednesday’s forum with an explanation of how immigrants become citizens. She said they must first become permanent legal residents and get “green cards,” a process that takes a few months to many years.

Five years later — three years for anyone who is married to a U.S. citizen — immigrants can apply for citizenship, Stickney said. That process costs $675 and includes an exam testing their ability to read and write English and understand U.S. history and government.

Stickney said it’s difficult for some adult immigrants to learn to read and write English if they work full time, and because Portland Adult Education has a year-long waiting list for introductory English classes.

The naturalization process is challenging, time-consuming and costly, said Alfred Jacob, 27, who came here as a refugee from Sudan when he was 16 and became a U.S. citizen two years ago.

Jacob said many immigrants in Portland are mothers whose children attend public schools, and allowing noncitizens to vote would encourage inclusion in the political process.

Richard Ranaghan, a member of the now-disbanded Charter Commission, said he believes the five-year waiting period to become a U.S. citizen is a fitting time span to demonstrate a commitment to the community. He questioned whether noncitizens who can’t read or write English would be able to understand complicated ballot issues such as the elected-mayor proposal, which is a page long.

Will Everitt, state director of the League of Young Voters, noted that native-born citizens don’t have to pass literacy tests to vote.

Everitt called native citizenship an “accident of geography” and said many citizens don’t know the inner workings of city government. He said that allowing noncitizens to vote would help address the unfairness of having them pay taxes and not allowing them to elect government representatives.

City Clerk Linda Cohen said she hears similar complaints of unfairness from people who own property in Portland and pay property taxes but cannot vote on local issues because they live elsewhere.

If the ballot initiative passes, the city will keep a separate list of noncitizen voters, Cohen said. Like citizens, noncitizens would be asked prove residency by showing a driver’s license or other documentation. At the polls, noncitizen voters would receive only municipal ballots, but the city could use the same machines to count all votes.

City attorney Gary Wood said the initiative could be challenged in court if it passes, because while state law allows municipalities to act independently on local matters, state and federal laws require voters to be U.S. citizens.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]