Gov. Paul LePage sent a letter Tuesday to Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling explaining why his proposal to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections would violate state law.

Gov. Paul LePage and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling

LePage pointed to several statutes, including a law that specifies the criteria for registering and voting in an election in Maine, with the first criteria being “the person must be a citizen of the United States.” The governor said other laws stipulate that Portland can’t exempt local elections from these criteria by amending the city charter.

LePage also took a swipe at the man who the governor once said would be better for Portland than former Mayor Michael Brennan, and who traveled to Augusta after being elected to talk policy with LePage over a steak dinner.

“Rather than pursue yet another politically correct boondoggle in his constant attempts to attract media attention, I asked Mayor Strimling to focus on real issues where municipalities and the state can work to prevent people from getting hurt,” LePage said Wednesday in his weekly radio address.

He added: “There’s a clear path to earning the right to vote: Become a citizen. The right to vote is a major and compelling incentive to become a citizen. Our laws should further this incentive, not remove it.”

Strimling said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by LePage’s remarks, given the governor’s past opposition to providing emergency assistance for food and housing for asylum seekers, who are prohibited from working for six months or more while their applications are being processed. Strimling had hoped to harness local push-back against President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies to win approval of the proposal in November, but instead the issue will be studied by a committee.

“The Republican Party has been scapegoating immigrants for a long time and I’m not surprised he’s taking up that mantle,” Strimling said, predicting the issue would be used to raise money for the party. “I don’t think his opinion is going to persuade the people of Portland not to support this.”

NATIONAL ATTENTION, CRITICISM

However, LePage’s remarks will likely fuel the debate beyond Portland’s borders, raising it as a statewide issue in a year when voters will be electing a new governor. LePage has successfully used the immigration issue against Portland in the past, especially its push to continue providing General Assistance to asylum seekers who are legally present in the United States.

Portland’s debate also is getting national attention. Only a dozen other U.S. communities – including 10 in Maryland – extend some voting rights to non-citizens on municipal issues.

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, wrote an op-ed published Monday by USA Today arguing that Portland’s proposal would create a “perverse incentive” for immigrants that “debases the value” of citizenship.

“Donald Trump may well be worthy of disapproval, but there are better forms of opposition to his immigration policies than to create a new political constituency of non-citizen voters,” Baker wrote.

Portland has led two unsuccessful efforts to extend voting rights to non-citizens. A statewide bill in 2009 that would have enabled municipalities to extend voting rights failed, as did a subsequent citywide referendum in 2010.

CONSEQUENCES, LEGAL ARGUMENTS

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali joined Mayor Ethan Strimling in proposing a charter amendment to give voting rights to legal residents who aren’t U.S. citizens. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Strimling put the idea back on the city’s radar in 2017. In July, he and City Councilor Pious Ali proposed a charter amendment to put to voters this fall. But after more than a two-hour public hearing, the proposal was referred to a committee because it apparently lacked the five votes to pass.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, which support extending voting rights, raised concerns about unintended consequences, including the need to create a separate voter file for non-citizens, who would still be barred from voting in state and federal elections. They’re worried that the voter lists could be used by immigration authorities or anti-immigrant politicians to target non-citizens.

LePage said state is law is clear that one must be a U.S. citizen to be eligible to vote. Although municipalities have broad authority to create local ordinances, LePage said that does not apply to extending voting rights to non-citizens. And he noted that citizenship is grounds for contesting a ballot.

The city’s current legal staff has not offered an opinion on the proposal’s legality.

Ali and Strimling point to an older legal opinion, by former city attorney Gary Wood, who said a court ruling would be needed to determine whether the proposal was legal. He said he would make such an argument under the home rule provision, although he warned that argument had only about a 40 percent change of prevailing.

“In other words, I think the stronger legal arguments favor a court decision that would declare the right illegal in light of existing state law,” Wood wrote in 2010.

ARGUMENTS OF PROPONENTS

In 2009, Attorney General Janet Mills, now the Democratic candidate for governor, told a legislative committee that the bill enabling municipalities to extend voting rights to non-citizens would not violate the Maine Constitution because those provisions deal only with state offices. Spokesman Tim Feeley said Mills has not reviewed Portland’s current proposal.

Proponents of the measure argue that age and residency – not citizenship – should be the primary qualifications to vote in municipal elections. They argue that all residents, including non-citizens, are directly affected by local decisions and should be able to vote for city councilors and school board members, as well as local referendums, including the annual school budget. School officials say 20 percent to 30 percent of public school students come from immigrant families, many of whom cannot vote.

Proponents also say that becoming a citizen is a lengthy and expensive process.

Like many opponents, LePage argued that immigrants should first become citizens before being allowed to vote.

“People don’t value the things they get for free,” LePage said. “Giving legal residents who are not yet citizens the right to vote devalues becoming a citizen of our country.”

Contact Randy Billings at 791-6346 or at:

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