It’s close to being official — if enough signatures are approved, voters in Portland will have the chance to decide to let people who are not U.S. citizens vote in local elections.

The City Clerk’s Office was handed 5,110 signatures by representatives of the League of Young Voters, a local activist organization. Volunteers collected them after the Portland Charter Commission decided not to include the proposal in the recommendations it would be asking voters to approve.

If 4,487 signatures — 10 percent of the city’s vote in the last gubernatorial election — are valid, the issue will appear on the ballot along with the commission’s proposals for an elected mayor and ranked-choice voting.

If it qualifies, that’s fine. However, Portlanders should keep their eyes on the main idea on the ballot, which is making the mayor’s post an elected position with expanded powers. That would be a far more significant change in the way local government operates than any of these other proposals.

The noncitizen voting idea is controversial, of course, because voting is the chief collective act of democratic government. In ancient Athens, where democracy was said to have been invented, citizens would deposit stones in containers to register their choice for the city-state’s leaders.

Our voting methods are more technically advanced, and we certainly allow more people to vote than the Athenians did (women and slaves outnumbered adult male citizens, but they were excluded from the process).

However, letting people who are not citizens decide issues of public importance is a step beyond other voting expansions of the past.

Giving women the franchise was only just, and lowering the voting age to 18 recognized that people out of high school and eligible to serve in the military should have all the privileges as well as the obligations of citizenship.

Supporters of the change, however, argue that noncitizens who live here do pay taxes, send their children to school and participate fully in a broad range of community activities. Allowing them to vote recognizes their contributions and advances justice by giving them a say on issues that affect them and electing officials who make decisions that influence their lives.

Portland would not be unique among U.S. cities in permitting noncitizens to vote. Nevertheless, while it is not a minor decision, it should not detract from the debate over the mayor’s role.

That’s a change that will make a real difference.


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