Saturday, December 7, 2013
PORTLAND - Portland voters will decide in November whether non-citizen residents should be allowed to cast ballots in city elections.
If the amendment to the city's charter is approved, Portland would be the first community in Maine to give legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens the right to vote in local elections.
Portland spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Wednesday that the City Clerk's office this week certified 4,522 signatures, just enough to surpass the threshold of 4,487 needed to place the referendum question on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The non-citizen voting rights campaign was led by the League of Young Voters. The league got involved last March after the city's Charter Commission voted 7-5 against recommending that the issue be put on the November ballot.
"We had a dream of making Portland more Democratic and more fair," explained Will Everitt, the league's Maine state director. "We have people who are doing all the right things, but don't have a say in how their taxes are being spent or how their schools are being run. On some level that is just wrong."
Everitt said there are thousands of immigrants living in Portland who cannot vote. On average, it takes three to five years to even begin the citizenship-application process.
Everitt said the proposed charter amendment would allow immigrants to register to vote in municipal elections as long as they can provide proof of identity, age, residency and legal status.
The charter amendment would only apply to city votes and would not affect state or federal elections. And legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens would not have the right to run for local office.
John Spritz, a member of Portland's Charter Commission, was one of the seven commissioners who voted against recommending the question be put on the ballot.
Spritz said commissioners were not expecting to address the issue of non-citizen voting when they started considering charter amendments a year ago. It quickly became a hot topic, but one a majority of the board felt should be handled as a citizen referendum.
"The tone of the commission was not that this was a bad thing but it felt like something that should come from the people, not the commission," Spritz said. "To me it feels like more of a civil rights issue. I think it's an extremely complex issue and one that may not be resolved in November."
But Richard J. Ranaghan Jr., another commission member, said he believes that a person must earn the right to vote by becoming a U.S. citizen, however long that might take.
"It (the right to vote) is something to be earned and not something to be handed out lightly," Ranaghan said.
Mohammed Dini, a Somali immigrant who became a U.S. citizen about eight years ago, helped gather petition signatures, along with 40 other volunteers. Dini hopes Portland voters will support non-citizen voting.
"Legal residents will be able to vote on issues that affect their pocketbook and their children's lives. Imagine living here for a decade and not having a say on anything," Dini said. "This aligns with what the founders of this country believed, no taxation without representation."
Jenna Vendil, a member of the Portland School Committee, also supports non-citizen voting.
"Today, we are one step closer towards making our local government more open, inclusive and responsive to the needs of our city's residents," Vendil said in a statement. "Including all legal residents in our elections will foster civic participation and community engagement on crucial issues, such as quality public education."
Everitt said the hardest part of the campaign lies ahead as volunteers try to educate voters.
"Whenever we mention the word immigrant, people immediately think illegal (immigrant)," he said. "I think we are going to have to have a real community dialogue about this."
Everitt said he realizes the campaign will be challenging.
"Democracy is about a diversity of ideas, opinions and backgrounds. This amendment to our city's (charter) is tough, fair and practical. It will ensure that everyone who is living legally and paying taxes in Portland has a say in our community," Everitt said.
The Maine Peoples Alliance, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and the Portland Green Independent Party were also involved in the petition drive.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: