A panel of voting and immigration experts on Tuesday night told members of Portland’s Charter Commission that extending voting rights to noncitizens is a laudable goal but is fraught with possible unintended consequences.

It also could conflict with another objective of some commissioners – holding mayoral elections in high-turnout years, such as presidential and gubernatorial elections.

If recommended and approved by voters, Portland would be the first community in Maine to enfranchise noncitizen voters and join more than a dozen other communities nationwide.

Advocates have argued that noncitizens should be allowed to vote in municipal elections because they are part of the community, pay local taxes, have children in the schools and are impacted by the school board and city council policies. Opponents, however, argue that voting is a right afforded only to U.S. citizens and should remain that way.

Extending voting rights to noncitizens in Portland has surfaced periodically over the last decade, but has failed to move forward. The most recent effort in 2018 was halted after immigrant advocates expressed concerns about the consequences of noncitizens accidentally voting in state or federal elections, which are only opens to citizens, or if separate voter rolls required for noncitizens fell into the wrong hands.

Beth Stickney, an immigration attorney, supports enfranchising noncitizens, but has concerns about how it would be implemented. She has worked with clients who were deported and barred from re-entering the United States after accidentally voting in a state election. She was not worried that noncitizens would intentionally vote improperly. Instead, she was concerned that tired or undertrained poll workers could mistakenly give noncitizens the wrong ballot, thereby thwarting their chances of becoming citizens.

“These things do happen. The consequences are real,” Stickney said. “I would love to see you go forward with this, but I would want to see all the protections put in place.”

Several communities across the U.S. have debated expanding voting rights to noncitizens in recent years. In the last year, two Vermont towns – Montpelier and Winooski – granted noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections after the legislature overturned vetoes from Republican Gov. Phil Scott. They joined San Francisco and 11 towns in Maryland to extend voting rights in municipal elections.

One of the most important components of Maryland’s noncitizen voting program is that they hold local elections in a different year than state or federal elections, said Dr. Ron Hayduk, a professor at San Francisco State University and the author of “Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States.”

Having local elections during an off-year ensures that noncitizens would not accidentally vote in the wrong election and violate immigration laws, Hayduk said.

“They have successfully built this firewall between state and federal and local elections,” Hayduk said.

That protection would run contrary to another possible charter change that would boost voter participation in Portland: holding mayoral elections during presidential or gubernatorial elections. Nearly 42,100 of the city’s 63,059 voters cast ballots during last fall’s presidential election, compared to 18,225 who voted in the 2019 mayoral election. June elections, when the school budget is approved, have the lowest turnout, with only 2,440 ballots cast in 2019.

San Francisco, meanwhile, posts warnings at the polls, saying that officials cannot guarantee the privacy of voters and warns of potential immigration consequences of accidentally voting in a federal election, Stickney said. Of particular concern, she said, would be people accessing the voter rolls, which would have an individual’s name and address, and using them to target noncitizens.

“Ten years ago, it never occurred to me that someone would try to access the voter roll for noncitizens voting in Portland,” Stickney said. “That information is not supposed to be used in a legal fashion, but that doesn’t prevent someone who is xenophobic from getting that information and disseminating it to someone who shouldn’t have that information, including immigration officials.”

The charter commission’s Elections Subcommittee began discussions Tuesday about whether the city should be the first in the state to extend voting rights to noncitizen residents. It heard presentations from a panel that included Hayduk and Stickney, as well as voting rights activist Lado Lodoka, and Julia Brown, an attorney and advocacy and outreach director at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. The panel did not include any opponents to the proposal.

While some states expressly allow or prohibit communities from enfranchising noncitizens, Maine law is silent, and the state’s constitution only says that citizens can vote in state and federal elections.

A petition effort last spring to prohibit municipalities from allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections, led by a Republican lawmaker from Hancock County, failed to qualify for the ballot.

Portland first pursued the initiative in 2009, when a state senator sponsored a bill to allow noncitizens to vote in on local issues. At the time, the secretary of state warned that noncitizen voter rolls would have to be maintained separately and the bill was opposed by the Maine Municipal Association. The lobbying group for towns and cities was concerned about the complexity and costs of running separate voter rolls and argued that the Legislature should abolish the citizenship requirement statewide.

The following year, a charter commission took up the issue. But concerns about whether Portland could allow noncitizens to vote without enabling legislation, along with the prospect of a court challenge, prompted the committee not to put the question to voters.

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, which lost by roughly 1,200 votes.

Mayor Ethan Strimling put the issue back on the city’s radar in 2017 and 2018, when the proposal was narrowly endorsed by the Portland Board of Public Education in a 4-3 vote. But the proposal was not forwarded to voters and was instead referred to a committee, partly because of concerns raised by immigration advocates. The secretary of state also affirmed that state legislation would be needed.

Hayduk, the professor and author, said that at one point 40 states had laws allowing noncitizens to vote and hold public office. That changed in 1926, when a wave of anti-immigrant laws began sweeping the country.

Lodoka, the voting rights advocate, urged the commission to move forward with the proposal, saying it’s a way for all residents to have a say in their communities and hold elected officials accountable. He believes any possible negative consequences can be addressed with education and well-trained election officials.

Lodoka said that elected officials currently have no incentive to listen to the input provided by noncitizens, because they cannot vote.

“As an immigrant myself, we do basically what everybody else is doing – raising a family, work, contribute and everything else,” he said. “When it comes to hold people who are making decisions on our behalf (accountable) we have to be pushed aside and allow people to do that on our behalf. It’s hard to reconcile that with the principle of democracy.”


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