The Portland Board of Education voted 4-3 to endorse a resolution urging the City Council to schedule a referendum asking city residents to extend voting rights to non-citizens who are here legally, such as asylum seekers and refugees.

Extending voting rights for municipal elections would require an amendment to the city charter, which can be done only through a citywide vote. The council will have a public hearing and possibly vote Monday on whether to hold a referendum in November.

Even if approved by voters, the issue will likely end up in court, and non-citizens would still be prohibited from voting in state and federal elections. A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage said such a move by the city would violate state law. Others believe state legislation would be needed.

Board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow said she supports the resolution, because 20 percent to 30 percent of public school students come from immigrant families. Many of their parents cannot vote.

“This is about standing with our parents and standing with our community,” Trevorrow said. “That’s the statement we are making to the council.”

Board members Laurie Davis, Sarah Thompson and Mark Balfantz voted against the resolution solely based on process, arguing that advising the council on this issue is not the board’s job. They also worried about fast-tracking the resolution in the summer, when people might not be paying attention.


“It’s an issue over which we do not have decision-making power,” said Davis, who supports extending voting rights. She didn’t think the board should vote ahead of the council. “I don’t feel comfortable as a member of this elected body to take that position in advance of the elected body whose responsibility is to take it up.”

Board members Holly Seeliger and Jenna Vendil were not present.

Two previous Portland-led efforts to extend voting rights have failed. Statewide legislation was defeated in 2009 and the following year a local referendum was voted down by 1,200 votes, 52 percent to 48 percent.

City Councilor Pious Ali, an immigrant from Ghana, is leading the initiative for Portland to give voting rights to non-citizens.

Mayor Ethan Strimling put the issue back on the radar in early 2017, but Councilor Pious Ali, an immigrant from Ghana, is leading the charge this time.

The board decision came after a workshop and hour-long public hearing. Nobody spoke against extending voting rights to non-citizens who are here legally, but some were concerned about unintended consequences of pushing the issue now.

Speakers who identified themselves as part of the immigrant community all supported the resolution.


Hawo Mohamed, 24, pushed back against the argument that voting rights is not a school board issue. She said her parents came to the U.S. in 1995, but didn’t earn citizenship until 2003. By then, she had been in the school system for three years. Allowing them to vote sooner would ensure that immigrant voices “have weight” in a way that attending meetings and after-school events does not.

“It is a school board issue – 100 percent. It affect school budgets and school policies,” she said. “The goal is inclusion here.”

Others said supporting the resolution was a way to push back against anti-immigrant sentiment.

“This is a resolution about our values as a city,” said resident Marpheen Chann.

Others expressed concerns that proponents are looking to score political points and could actually hurt the people they’re trying to help. They worried about the current political environment, fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House.

Shoshana Hoose, who works with immigrants at Portland Adult Education, said she supports Portland’s immigrant community but has “a lot of misgivings” about the voting proposal, including worries it could stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. That happened nearly 10 years ago, she said, when the question was last debated and defeated in a citywide vote.


“I fear it could be much worse this time,” Hoose said, imploring city leaders to instead focus on things like substandard housing conditions and protecting General Assistance, which have a greater impact on legally present non-citizens.

Hanover Street resident George Rheault urged the city to delay the push for a year so it wouldn’t impact the upcoming governor’s race. He likened it to an anti-bear-baiting initiative in 2014 and the gun-control referendum in 2016 that turned out more conservative voters, boosting Gov. Paul LePage and then-candidate Donald Trump, respectively.

Rheault advised the board not to “hand the reactionary forces in Maine an issue” to deploy “as a weapon to use Portland as a scapegoat.”

But the majority of board members believed the issue is important and urgent enough to pursue now.

Board member Tim Atkinson said District 4, which he represents, includes many non-citizens.

“We would be accountable to a different set and a more comprehensive set of our community,” Atkinson said. “I want to be accountable to them.”

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, according to a memo to councilors.

This story was updated to correct an error characterizing Shoshana Hoose’s position on the voting proposal.

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