It’s surprising that the Portland Charter Commission issue that has sparked the most public involvement — practically the only public involvement — has been an issue that was barely on the radar when the commission was created. The issue is non-citizen voting.

In a pair of public meetings, resident immigrants and their advocates delivered arguments on why it was important to include their voices in local government, whether or not they have officially become citizens of the United States. The passion they brought to their case has clearly had an effect on the commission, which has virtually deadlocked on whether to send the measure out to voters.

We opposed this idea before the debate started, and nothing we have heard in the public meetings changes our position.

Supporters argue that the path to citizenship is much harder than it was even a generation ago, and forcing newcomers to make the journey before they can vote unfairly takes away their voice in the meantime. But if it’s too hard to become a citizen, then it’s federal law that should be changed, not Portland’s charter.

They also argue that denying non-citizens the right to vote denies them an opportunity to influence government. The attention this issue has gotten and the support of about half the commission’s members shows that that’s not the case. Non-citizens can participate and influence the debate even if they can’t vote.

A compelling practical argument against permitting non-citizen voting is that what Portland is considering could be illegal without a change to state law. The charter commission should be focused on ways to make government more transparent and efficient, not picking lengthy and divisive court battles.

There are legitimate questions about the role of non-citizens in public life, but changing Portland’s charter is not the right way to answer them. State and federal legislation would be more appropriate vehicles for this issue.

 


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