Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Pious Ali are bringing forward a proposal to allow some non-citizens to vote in local elections.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling says the timing is right to put an initiative on the November that would allow legal U.S. residents who aren’t citizens to vote in local elections. 2016 Press Herald file photo/Jill Brady

The proposal would allow adult non-citizens who are legally present in the U.S., including asylum seekers and refugees, to vote in municipal elections such as local referendums including school budgets, and races for school board and City Council. Undocumented immigrants would not be allowed to vote.

Non-citizens can vote in a handful of U.S. cities, but the idea has been rejected before in Portland and statewide, and the proposal faces multiple hurdles.

It would require an amendment to the City Charter, which can be done only through a citywide vote. The council must first vote to put the question to voters, and that proposal will appear for the first time on Monday’s council agenda. A public hearing and possible vote by the council is scheduled for Aug. 13.

And there are conflicting opinions about whether the move could be challenged in court as a violation of state law, an argument made Wednesday by a spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage.

Strimling, who first announced in January 2017 that he planned to introduce the proposal, said the timing is right to place the initiative on the ballot this November. Portland residents have said loud and clear that they support immigrants and oppose federal efforts to restrict immigration, he said.

“The outcry of support for the immigrant community in this city has been remarkable under the Trump administration,” Strimling said. “It’s so heartening, and I think this is another good step forward.”

Strimling said Ali, an immigrant for Ghana, is leading the initiative. Ali did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.

It’s unclear how the proposal will be received by other councilors, many of whom did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. The few who did respond had a range of reactions.

“I will need to be convinced that we should change the charter,” Councilor Kim Cook said. “My initial thought is voting is a right that comes with citizenship.”

ADDRESSING LEGAL QUESTIONS

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau was concerned about whether the state would need to pass enabling legislation, and whether the city could extend voting rights to a group of people while not also making them eligible to run for public office. He wondered if councilors would have enough time to study the proposal before putting it to voters this fall.

The proposal says it will be up to the city clerk to establish standards for assessing legal status. City Clerk Katherine Jones was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

“There are some legal questions here that need to be answered,” Thibodeau said. “I’m definitely supportive of the idea, but I want to make sure that, if we’re doing this, we’re doing this in the correct way and we’re not excluding rights.”

Councilor Brian Batson said he was leaning toward supporting the proposal.

“At this time I can see myself supporting this,” Batson said in an email. “At the end of the day, many legal immigrants are active members of the community working in Portland, paying taxes, owning homes or renting, and having children in the school system. It only makes sense to me that their voices be heard in the decisions made locally that directly affect them.”

This will be the third Portland-led effort to extend voting rights to legal non-citizens. Currently, legally present non-citizens are allowed to vote in local elections in 10 cities and townships in Maryland, as well as San Francisco and Chicago, Strimling and Ali said in a memo to councilors.

IDEA DEFEATED TWICE PREVIOUSLY

Former state Sen. Justin Alfond, a Democrat from Portland, proposed the initiative at the state level in 2009, but it was struck down by the Legislature. At the time, Attorney General Janet Mills informed a legislative subcommittee that extending voting rights to legally present non-citizens would not violate the Maine Constitution.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said each municipality would have to maintain a separate registry for non-citizens, which led the Maine Municipal Association to oppose it.

The following year, Portland’s Charter Commission considered the proposal, but voted against it. That group was concerned that state law did not specifically allow municipalities to extend those voting rights to legal non-citizens.

But the measure made the ballot anyway after immigration advocates, led by the League of Young Voters, collected more than 4,500 petition signatures. That November, 52 percent of voters opposed the proposal and it lost by roughly 1,200 votes.

If the proposal goes to Portland voters in November and passes, the city could push for a new state law explicitly enabling the change. It also could face a legal challenge.

IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for LePage, said in an email Wednesday that state law explicitly says only citizens can register to vote. “This would be a violation of state law and also be grounds to challenge the vote,” Rabinowitz wrote.

Advocates have argued that the City Council can make changes related to municipal elections, and that legal non-citizens should play an active role in the community as they go through the years-long process of becoming naturalized citizens.

If Portland passes the measure, Strimling expects that it would be up to a court to determine whether it’s legal.

The proposal continues to have support from the immigrant community.

Hamza Haadoow first came to the United States in 2000. He had fled violence in Somalia and spent 10 years in a refugee came in Kenya, before coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.

But when he got here, he met an American woman, fell in love and got married. Six years later, he received his green card, but it took him another three years to become a U.S. citizen. Then he cast his first ballot.

Haadoow said it was frustrating, because during that time he had children in the school system and wanted to be fully engaged in the democratic process by electing school board members and city councilors. Haadoow, 42, has 10 children, ages 6 to 20, and owns his own home health care business.

And he always votes.

“I’m obsessed with it,” said Haadoow, who was one of 15 candidates to run for mayor in 2011. “When I cast my vote it was a big deal to me and it still is a big deal to me. It bothers me when someone has been denied their right to vote.”

But some believe that the path Haadoow took to citizenship and voting rights shouldn’t be altered.

“We have a process in this country to follow to go from being a legal immigrant to a U.S. citizen,” said Mike Violette, a West End resident and the conservative former co-host of the morning show on Portland radio station WGAN. “Follow it and then vote your heart and mind.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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